Growing up within a bike ride of the Flathead River, I had no idea that my favorite river originated in British Columbia. I just knew that the Flathead River is special and its clean, cold waters were undeniable.
As I grew older, I learned that the three forks of the Flathead come together in Bad Rock Canyon to form the Flathead and that the North Fork is the wildest and most remote of the three.
As an adult, I came to understand that while the Montana portion of the North Fork is one of the most pristine and protected rivers in America, the Canadian headwaters are zoned for mountaintop-removal coalmines, coalbed methane extraction and all other types of metal mining and drilling.
Here in the Flathead, generations of Montanans have long raised concerns over the impacts of these activities on our water, fish and wildlife. Experts warn pollution that from such activities would flow into Glacier National Park within hours and to Flathead Lake within days.
Last month, Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer held a town-hall meeting to discuss the future of the Canadian headwaters of Flathead River and Flathead Lake. In the past five years, three mountaintop-removal coalmines and two coalbed methane projects have been proposed for the Canadian Flathead.
A packed room of 300 people cheered when Baucus announced that energy giant British Petroleum had abandoned their proposal to develop coalbed methane in the Canadian portion of the Flathead. American democracy and diplomacy was at work. Our elected officials summed up what we all know: Water is Montana’s most precious resource and Glacier’s wildlife, native trout and pristine waters are the fabric of our community, economy and way of life.
Our elected officials – at every level – deserve credit for delivering Montana’s bipartisan voice in the Canadian halls of power and the corporate boardrooms of British Petroleum. Montana concerns are validated as our Canadian neighbors in Fernie, Cranbrook and Elko join with us to protect water quality and wildlife.
While last month’s announcement represents a significant step in our efforts to protect this international treasure – it does not spell victory. Cline Mining Corporation is still promoting a risky and speculative proposal to literally remove a mountain directly above a key North Fork tributary to mine coal for the next 20 years. Another plan is in the works to mine coal under the North Fork riverbed itself.
The acknowledgment of Canadian officials that this area – the heart of the Crown of the Continent – is too special and internationally significant for industrial fossil fuel extraction is a positive development. We all use fossil fuels, but part of responsible energy development is recognizing that some places are just too special to put at risk. The Crown of the Continent is one of those priceless areas.
Now is the time for the provincial and federal governments of Canada to advance a plan for the permanent protection of the Flathead that respects the existing, world-class values of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and surrounding landscape for current and future generations.
The National Parks Conservation Association will continue to work with local communities, Montana leaders, and our Canadian neighbors to advocate for a long-term solution.
Will Hammerquist is Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. He lives in Whitefish.
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