An international team of scientists has concluded that mining in the "Canadian Flathead" north of Glacier National Park would harm both Glacier and the adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada.
At the invitation of the United States and Canada, the World Heritage Committee last fall sent experts from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre to visit Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park to evaluate the status of the joint U.S. – Canadian Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park World Heritage Site and provide recommendations regarding requirements for the long-term protection of Waterton-Glacier, in particular from potential external threats in the Flathead River Valley.
The visit was spurred, in part, by petitions from conservation groups that were concerned that proposals to mine the Flathead region north of Glacier and west of Waterton Lakes would greatly impact the region from the flow and quality of its waters to the health of its wildlife. Those concerns were heightened in December after another mining proposal, this one focused on gold, surfaced.
With those proposals as a backdrop, the U.S. and Canadian governments recently received a 50-page draft of the field team's report. While that report has not been made public, Stephen Morris, the National Park Service's chief of international affairs, said this morning that it largely supports the agency's concerns over the mining proposals.
“We think it’s a good report, we think it was very thorough and comprehensive and we appreciate the time and effort that was put into it," he said from his Washington, D.C., office. "It reconfirms the concerns we’ve had for some time, that mining in the Canadian Flathead would be a threat to the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage Site. We support that finding.”
Tucked into British Columbia's southeastern corner, the Canadian Flathead Valley is a 40-mile swath of sawtooth-tipped mountains and alluvial plains that cradle the headwaters of the Flathead River. That ruggedness, with its resident grizzly bears, wolves, elk, lynx, mountain goat, wolverine and pristine fisheries of bull trout and Westslope cutthroat trout, has prompted one biologist to tag the area as "the single most important basin for carnivores in the Rocky Mountains."
Together Glacier and Waterton Lakes also protect an important biological crossroads at the point where the Rocky Mountains reach their narrowest width. The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park also serves as a celebration of the longest undefended contiguous border between two nations and a reminder that many natural resources have no boundaries.
The ecological value of the area wasn't overlooked -- but seemingly was ignored -- back in 1995 when the Waterton Lakes-Glacier was designated a World Heritage Site. Indeed, in its summary of the landscape the International Union for Conservation of Nature stated that, "the essential point is that the (Waterton-Glacier) unit is less complete in its coverage of the ecosystem than existing World Heritage Sites in the region. This could make the unit more prone to loss of species in the long run unless extra effort is made to manage cooperatively the public and private lands that adjoin the parks."
Taking a larger look at the landscape, the transboundary Crown of the Continent region, including the Flathead Valley, is one of the most intact, diverse and connected ecosystems in the temperate zones of the world. Characterized by remoteness and farsighted conservation practices, the core of the Crown of the Continent consists of transboundary land encompassing Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, and Bob Marshall, Great Bear, and Lincoln Scapegoat Wilderness areas.
In its report the field team talks "about the values in the Flathead, the pristine nature of it," Mr. Morris said. "They reiterate that it has some of the highest water quality in North America, that it contains the greatest diversity of plants and animals in the Rocky Mountains. ... In light of the high ecological value of the place, their view, and which we agree with, is that mining would cause irreparable damage.”
More specifically, the report voiced concerns about the remixing of surface and ground waters, the possibility of chemicals and disturbed minerals dissolving in the waters, and road networks, he said.
“It’s essentially industrial development," said Mr. Morris.
The Canadian and the U.S. governments currently are working on a joint response to the field team's report and expect to have it finished by the end of February. That report, as well as the field team's final report, will be presented to the full World Heritage Committee when it meets in July. What the outcome would be if the World Heritage Committee accepts the findings is hard to say. Certainly, said Mr. Morris, Canada is a sovereign country and the committee can't tell it how to manage its lands.
However, he noted, Canada has played a "leading role" in the World Heritage Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and as a signatory to the convention the country made pledges that it would "protect their own World Heritage Sites and those in other countries."
Among the recommendations in the field team's report are that Canada and the United States develop a single wildlife conservation management plan for the region and that there be "further cooperation between Waterton Lakes and Glacier, we support that," said Mr. Morris. “We remain committed to working with our Canadian counterparts to find an acceptable solution that will preserve the World Heritage Site.”