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Legislation, More Agreements Still Needed to Ensure Protection

   

The Missoulian, Saturday, February 26, 2011:  Now that the trans-boundary conference calls and Washington, D.C., hand-shaking sessions are over, a lot remains to finish in protecting the Flathead River between British Columbia and Montana.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer's Valentine's Day announcement that two conservation groups were providing $9.4 million to buy out mining claims on the Canadian side of the Flathead didn't include all the details of the deal. One significant omission was that while the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy is raising its half of the money through private donations, the Nature Conservancy of Canada is dipping into a $225 million Canadian government fund for its contribution.

 

"We're using $6 million of that funding toward the project cost," said Dave Hillary, a spokesman for the Canadian conservation group. "The funding is going directly to the province of British Columbia to administer the memorandum of understanding. We are not in direct dialogue with the mining companies. And while the vast majority of the funding goes to compensating the mining claims, the rest will be spent to maintain and enhance ecological values of the area."

That could include preserving old-growth timber stands, water quality projects, protecting endangered species and improving riparian areas on roughly 400,000 acres of the Canadian Flathead River watershed, Hillary said.

On the American side, the Nature Conservancy may spend several years raising its share of the $9.4 million. And Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester have to win passage of Senate Bill 233, which would permanently remove 400,000 acres along the North Fork of the Flathead River from oil and gas exploration. While about 80 percent of existing energy exploration leases have already been voluntarily retired, a handful remain in contention. (See related story.)

The British Columbia Parliament has a lot of legislation to pass as well, according to a provincial government spokesman in Victoria. First on the list is passage of a bill to officially prohibit exploration of mining, oil and gas reserves in the Flathead watershed. Premier Gordon Campbell did that by executive order when he announced the agreement with Schweitzer at the start of last year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Parliament's action would keep future premiers from rescinding it just as easily.

Also on the list are plans to address climate change in the Northern Rockies and Columbia Basin, maintain conservation priorities in the province's Southern Rocky Mountain Management Plan, and build partnerships to designate wildlife habitat for threatened species like bull trout, badger and bighorn sheep.

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While that sounds like a lot, the Flathead memorandum of understanding doesn't quite cover the entire wish list sought by Crown of the Continent advocates. One of the oldest is expansion of Waterton Lakes National Park.

"The (Canadian) federal government has it as one of its top 10 new park acquisitions or enlargements," said Dave Hadden of Headwaters Montana, a Crown of the Continent advocacy group based in Bigfork. "But the province still needs to authorize a feasibility study on the economic and ecological impacts of a park. That's the hold-off."

Waterton's western boundary ends at the Alberta-British Columbia provincial border. Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park covers another stretch of the mountains bordering Glacier National Park, while the rest of the land north of Glacier is part of the Flathead Provincial Forest.

"The key thing there would be to preclude any kind of industrial development on either side of the border," said Brace Hayden of the Flathead Coalition. A retired Glacier Park official, Hayden said the border area is an incredibly productive area for grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines and other sensitive species.

"From my work at Glacier, you know you're managing one population there," Hayden said of the ecosystem. "Expanding the park would go a long way to protecting trans-boundary movements of wildlife. In the short term, securing the protection on both sides of the border from industrial development would be a big issue."

British Columbia's government doesn't plan on expanding that, according to a provincial statement.

"In the case of the B.C. Flathead, government does not believe expanded park protection, beyond the current boundaries of Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park that borders Glacier National Park, is a necessary or appropriate instrument to sustain conservation values," the statement read. "Nor does an expanded park address needs of local residents and First Nations."

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Another way land conservation might happen is the re-establishment of a wildlife management area in the Canadian Rockies between Waterton Lakes and Banff. A previous British Columbia administration created a Southern Rockies Wildlife Management Area, but it was removed by Premier Campbell in 2001.

"It's a loose designation with very little enforceability," said Gary Tabor, a senior fellow at the University of Montana's Center for Large Landscape Conservation. "But it makes a framework for future planning."

And the political winds seem turned in favor of such planning. In 2009, a UNESCO World Heritage Committee review team warned the British Columbia government that mining in the Flathead watershed would violate the World Heritage Convention, which underpins the International Peace Park designation shared by Waterton and Glacier parks. The report called for a mining ban on both sides of the border and a wildlife management area between Waterton Lakes-Glacier and the Banff World Heritage site.

Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association noted that 2011 is the 100th anniversary of Waterton's first superintendent, Kootenai Brown, proposing expansion of the park's boundaries.

"It's not like we're asking for anything new," Jamison said. "It's important to recognize the welcome steps the British Columbia government has made in the past couple years. We've got a great international relationship to build on. But the rest of the Flathead work is still on the table."

After years of supporting mining and development in the Flathead, Campbell surprised many with his support of the memorandum of understanding. And last week, President Barack Obama mentioned the Flathead agreement specifically during his America's Great Outdoors presentation.

"When Obama mentioned the Flathead was an area of importance, I was astounded," Tabor said. "They have the ear of the president on this."