Fighting for the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a group of conservation photographers is giving the Flathead an ample voice as an exhibit on the values of and threats to the valley heads to Washington D.C.

The International League of Conservation Photographers, along with the National Parks Conservation Association, spent two weeks in the Flathead River Valley in British Columbia and parts of Glacier National Park documenting the animals, plants and landscape. But, along with the beauty, the photographers also attempted to capture the threats the valley could face in the future.

“Here’s a million acres that is pretty much the way it always has been. It’s a very unique valley in that respect,” said Will Hammerquist, Glacier program manager for the NPCA.

It was this ancient presence that brought the ILCP into the valley, Hammerquist said. The threat of strip mining for coal on the Canadian side of the border is a danger to the rest of the ecosystem, he added.

“Those valleys will be lost for future generations,” Hammerquist said.

The ILCP has completed numerous similar projects in environmentally sensitive areas across the globe, with the latest project in the Yucutan. The photographers come from numerous countries, including the United States, Mexico, Germany, India and China and take two weeks to perform a “rapid assessment visual expedition,” or a RAVE. Their time is donated and they forgo royalties for their images. Their next project will be in Patagonia.

ILCP founder and president Cristina Mittermeier said her organization chose the Flathead because of its global significance as one of the purest valleys left on the continent.

“We are looking for projects where there’s a real possibility of having some impact,” Mittermeier said. “The campaign is building up momentum, and the photography is a tipping point.”

Mittermeier also said the ILCP chose the project because Canada’s environmental reputation will be defined by the fragile balance of the Flathead, a reputation she thinks “it’s doing a good job of destroying.”

During their two-week RAVE in July, photographers captured hundreds of images using various methods, including “trapping.” This means setting a motion detector camera on a popular game trail and letting it snap photos of curious animals wandering by.

Hammerquist said the project could not have happened if it weren’t for the help of outdoor businesses who depend on clean river water for their livelihood, including the Glacier Wilderness Guides and Montana Raft Company, who lent the photographers a van for their travels.

Of the numerous images produced by the photographers, 14 were chosen to be in the exhibit set to debut at the U.S. Senate Russell building in Washington D.C. after Thanksgiving. Montana U.S. Sen. Max Baucus sponsored the exhibit.

“We were excited to work with politicians and local businesses and conservation allies and Canada, and we’re excited for people to see it,” Hammerquist said. “It came together really well.”

The photos show the expanse of the wilderness, the animals that inhabit it and the plant life in the valley. There are also aerial views of Canadian mining projects in the Elk River Valley north of the Flathead.

The goal is to get powerful people to pay attention to the issue and consider permanent protection for the area, Mittermeier said. The photographs will probably be the closest most of them ever get to the valley, she added.

“Our job as journalists is to educate the public about something that’s happening that they might not be aware of,” Mittermeier said.

After its journey to the nation’s capitol, the exhibit will visit Montana’s capitol building around Christmas. After that, it will head to British Columbia and end up in Vancouver in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics in February. Then it will come back to Montana in time for Glacier Park’s centennial celebration.

Conservation is an issue close to Mittermeier’s heart. She was born in Mexico, a country she said has destroyed much of its environment in the name of business. With this in mind, the ILCP’s goal is to bring in outsiders to wake up the local residents and politicians who are accustomed to their surroundings.

“You take it for granted,” Mittermeier said. “Giving away a little bit more doesn’t seem like a big deal until it’s gone.”

Ideally, the Flathead exhibit would help people understand the consequences of mining, Mittermeier said, so each photo has a caption explaining the delicate balance of the area.

“It’s a very special place. It’s just a remarkable piece of our planet,” Mittermeier said. “Coal mines, we have a dime a dozen, and they’re all pretty ugly.”

To see some of the ILCP’s photos of the Flathead Valley, visit http://gallery.me.com/ilcp.

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