Fernie, B.C., Seeks Apology for Whitefish Resolution

By Beacon Staff

The city of Fernie, British Columbia, is waiting for an apology from Whitefish after the Whitefish City Council inadvertently passed a resolution in conjunction with Fernie – which the British Columbia resort town had never heard of.

“Not only had we not endorsed it, we’d never seen it,” said Alan Young, a Fernie city council member and currently the acting mayor of Fernie. “We didn’t really understand why you would ever put somebody’s name on something that they hadn’t signed onto.”

Passed unanimously Oct. 15 by Whitefish, the resolution encouraged Gov. Brian Schweitzer and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell to meet and discuss various trans-boundary issues. Although the issue of proposed coalbed methane drilling and coal mining in the Canadian Flathead weren’t specifically named in the resolution, Whitefish Mayor Cris Coughlin acknowledged the controversial mining projects were likely at the heart of the joint-letter: “I would guess that’s probably why the original parties put it together.”

At issue are proposals by British Petroleum to drill for coalbed methane, and by the Cline Mining Company to do mountaintop-removal coal mining in the headwaters of the North Fork Flathead River. The Canadian Flathead is a significant habitat for grizzly bears, and its rivers are trout-spawning areas. Opponents of the projects say the mining and drilling would harm wildlife as well as pollute the Flathead River watershed. Montana’s federal delegation have been outspoken in their opposition to the projects, and a September request by Schweitzer to meet with Campbell about the mining proposals met with a mixed response.

While city officials on either side of the border characterize the resolution as a simple misunderstanding, the incident does nothing to alleviate the sensitivity of some B.C. residents to what they feel is heavy-handed treatment they often receive from Montana when dealing with environmental or economic problems north of the border. Such resentment can often cloud conflicts in which Montanans and B.C. residents might otherwise find themselves in agreement.

As of last week, Coughlin had not yet received a formal request for an apology from Fernie, but she indicated Whitefish would be forthcoming in efforts to make amends over the blunder.

“I think that was an oversight on our part,” she said. “Whitefish can only make decisions for Whitefish.”

Will Hammerquist, Glacier Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, was the primary author of the resolution, and reviewed drafts of it with Coughlin and Casey Brennan, Southern Rockies Program Manager for Wildsight, a Canadian conservation group. Hammerquist said it was unintentional that, in the course of revising several drafts of the resolution, Fernie’s name was not removed from the language – but noted the incident may demonstrate the necessity for open communication between the two resort towns on either side of the border.

“We’ve just got to make lemonade out of lemons here and recognize an honest mistake,” Hammerquist said. “Maybe this is an example of why we do need to talk more.”

“Whitefish council is to be commended for stepping up on this issue,” Hammerquist added.

Young characterized the resolution as a minor oversight, saying, “I don’t think this has compromised our relationship at all,” but added that he did not think the Fernie City Council would support such a resolution had it been offered in an appropriate way.

“Quite frankly, we have no say in the matter,” he said, pointing out that B.C.’s democratic system differs from the United States: Premier Campbell is the leader of his political party, which controls a majority in the government, but he is popularly elected by a different district than Fernie’s. Fernie residents are not constituents of Campbell in the same way that Montanans are constituents of the governor, therefore a letter from Fernie would not carry much weight with the premier.

Young also said he did not believe it is the place of the Fernie City Council to weigh in on issues like the proposed mining and drilling, which are considered at the provincial, national and international – not local – level.

“Our stand on this particular issue was, ‘Let the big boys play in the big boys’ sandbox,’” Young said. “It’s not our mandate to pass judgment on things and involve ourselves in things we can’t actually control.”

Young and Brennan of Wildsight emphasized they oppose any natural resource extraction that causes environmental damage, but that the brash approach taken by some U.S. officials misunderstands the Canadian propensity for decorum, etiquette, and a willingness to give BP and Cline a chance to make their case.

Brennan said an op-ed column published earlier this year in the Fernie Free Press by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., generated more resentment toward American “cowboy style” rhetoric than it motivated opposition to the mining. In the column, Baucus said the Canadian government will have “the fight of their life on their hands” if the Cline Mine went forward.

“It plays pretty awful up here,” Brennan said. “Canadians like to be polite and they like people to treat them with respect.”

B.C. Mining Proposals: Latest Developments

• Sen. Baucus issued a statement opposing a third proposed mining project in the Canadian Flathead. According to the statement, the B.C. government allowed test drilling for phosphate in the Cabin Creek area.

“The threats are mounting,” Baucus said. “It’s time for Canadian officials to stiffen their spines and for once say ‘no.’”

• A coalition of Montana conservation groups expressed concern over the B.C. government’s decision to allow the province’s first commercial coalbed methane operation to dump toxic water – a byproduct of CBM drilling – directly into the Elk River, which flows into Lake Koocanusa.

Will Hammerquist, Glacier Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said allowing the Storm Cat Energy Corporation to dispose of its wastewater through surface discharge directly violates the B.C. Energy Plan.