Almost 30 years ago a Canadian company wanted to build a coal mine six miles north of Glacier National Park, near the North Fork of the Flathead River. The result was a contentious battle spanning three decades and reaching the highest levels of government in both Canada and the United States.
Last week the issue came to a resolution in Canada as the British Columbia Parliament passed legislation prohibiting mining and energy extraction activities on almost 400,000 acres of land within the river basin.
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark legislated the new law, which was originally agreed upon between former Premier Gordon Campbell and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer in 2010.
As part of the 10-million-acre Crown of the Continent, the Flathead River system feeds into Flathead Lake and forms the western boundary of Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park. The area has been named a Wild and Scenic River and World Heritage Site, and is home to bull trout, elk, wolverine and Canada lynx and has the highest density of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states.
The manager of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Crown of the Continent Program, one of the organizations that has pushed for protection of the North Fork for years, commended the efforts of Schweitzer, Clark, Campbell and Montana Sen. Max Baucus, but would like to see the next step taken with United States following Canada’s lead and completing similar legislation on the Montana side of the border.
“We have an international obligation to provide reciprocity in terms of protecting the Montana side of the Flathead just as the Canadians have on their side,” said Michael Jamison of NPCA, an independent organization that works to protect national parks in the U.S.
“We need to finish our end of the bargain,” he said.
Jamison said Baucus’ bill, SB 233 or the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, would ensure protection of another 400,000 acres on the United States’ side of the border. Currently about 80 percent of the oil and gas leases within the river basin have been retired. Baucus’ bill would withdraw the land base from any future leases in the area.
Protecting the headwaters of Glacier Park came to the forefront after several companies tried developing mountaintop removal mining and gas drilling operations throughout the years.
Several organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, began campaigning for protection of the river basin, and the effort has received the attention of the United Nations and the U.S. State Department.
“A healthy and free-flowing Flathead River is good for people and wildlife on both sides of the border. This bi-national effort gives hope to communities whose economies rely on the river and to iconic wildlife that represent the spirit of the West,” Dr. Richard Jeo, a biologist and director for The Nature Conservancy’s Canada Program, said in a press release.
The director of The Nature Conservancy in Montana said the new protection effort is a visionary one that will provide future opportunities in one of the country’s precious areas.
“This reaches beyond borders and even beyond the people and wildlife that depend on the river today,” Kat Imhoff said in a press release. “We’re making sure that our grandchildren and their children won’t just have a place to fish or float, but that they’ll still have a world with wild places for grizzlies to roam and the water remains pure.”
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