BILLINGS – U.N. scientists have recommended a moratorium on mining in British Columbia’s Flathead Valley and the creation of a conservation plan for the remote region spanning the United States-Canada border, a U.S. official said Thursday.
Several companies have announced plans to extract coal, natural gas and gold within the Canadian stretch of the valley, which is near Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park and Montana’s Glacier National Park.
But the call for curbs on mining is likely to increase international pressure on Canada to put those plans on hold.
The mining proposals have drawn sharp criticism from U.S. officials and conservation groups on both sides of the border. They see mining as a threat to an area designated as a World Heritage site in 1995 because of its outstanding scenery and abundant wildlife.
The moratorium was recommended in an unpublished report from a U.N. World Heritage team that visited the area in September, said Stephen Morris, chief of international affairs for the National Park Service.
Morris said he received a copy of the 50 page report and that the U.S. generally agrees with its conclusions.
“This is an area of high ecological value and a very important corridor for wildlife and birds,” Morris said. “When you think about mining in a place like that, you can see why there’s a tremendous risk.”
The report will be presented in July to the 21-nation United Nations World Heritage Committee for a decision on whether to adopt the recommendations.
Any action by the committee would not be binding. “But clearly their views have some weight,” Morris said.
A 2003 British Columbia land-use plan for the area set mining as a high priority and said other uses such as wildlife habitat and recreation “will not preclude … approval of mining activities.”
A mining industry representative said the U.N. committee should not ignore that planning effort and make a decision based on a short visit by some of its scientists.
“That region has an extremely high level of protected areas already,” said Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of British Columbia. “You have to take a reasoned and long-term view before you use a blunt instrument like a moratorium.”
Gratton added that all of the work now being done in the region is exploratory.
The Parks Canada official in charge of World Heritage programs, Larry Ostola, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The U.N. team’s September visit came after two environmental groups — Earthjustice in the United States and EcoJustice in Canada — petitioned for the agency to intervene against several mining proposals announced in recent years.
The latest announcement, in December, came from Max Resource Corp., which said it had extracted samples of high-grade gold from a ridge about 10 miles north of Glacier.
In 1985, a U.S.-Canada joint commission rejected an open pit coal mine in the same area, known as Cabin Creek, because of potential environmental damages.
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso said the U.N. team’s report appeared to have reached the same conclusion for the Flathead Valley as a whole.
“While there are some areas appropriate for mining, this is not one of them,” Preso said.
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