KALISPELL - An alliance of veteran superintendents from Glacier and Waterton Lakes national parks has written a letter encouraging swift government action on a public lands bill that would finalize park protections introduced earlier this year.

Describing Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park as an "international treasure," retired Glacier Park Superintendent Mick Holm beseeched leaders in both countries to view the letter as a call to action to protect and preserve a "globally significant World Heritage site."

"This issue has been on the table for a long time," Holm said in a telephone interview from his home near Columbia Falls. "Every superintendent who signed the letter served while these issues were on the table, and now we're probably as close as we ever have been to reaching some kind of resolution."

The joint public letter, signed by six former Glacier superintendents and two former superintendents of Waterton Lakes, comes in the final days of Glacier's centennial year, and as Congress considers a bipartisan omnibus bill aimed at protecting the country's land, water and wildlife resources. The legislation, called America's Great Outdoors Act of 2010, encompasses more than 110 individual bills and includes several key protection measures for both Glacier and Waterton Lakes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week he would like to see passage of the bill before Congress adjourns in early January.

In their letter, the former superintendents endorse a long-standing proposal for Canada to expand the boundaries of Waterton Lakes National Park westward into one-third of the British Columbian Flathead. They also call on Canada to establish a wildlife management area connecting Waterton-Glacier to other Canadian Rocky Mountain parks, including Banff.

"This is a broad ecosystem that we share," Holm said. "These protections are about managing an entire landscape that transcends political boundaries."

The former Glacier superintendent said it's worth noting that both of Montana's U.S. senators and Gov. Brian Schweitzer support the memorandum, as do nearly all of Glacier's living superintendents, who served as custodians to the park at various times in its history.

"We all have a passion for Glacier Park. That's why we worked there, and that passion doesn't go away at the end of a career," Holm said. "We have a critical issue here, and maybe with a little support we can help move it forward."

The former superintendents applauded recent historic steps by both countries to prohibit coal strip-mines, hard-rock mining, and oil and gas leases on public lands upstream from Waterton-Glacier, including action to protect 400,000 acres in Canada and the voluntary relinquishment of 200,000 acres of oil and gas leases by energy companies in the United States.

Still, legislation to finalize the mining and drilling ban has yet to become law in the United States, and the superintendents urged prompt action on that front.

"This vital legislation would prohibit new mining and fossil fuel leasing on Waterton-Glacier's western periphery, in high mountain country that includes the drinking water supply for the gateway community of Whitefish, Montana," the letter states. "The bill also protects lands throughout the Middle Fork of the Flathead River corridor, a Congressionally designated Wild and Scenic River that forms Glacier Park's southwestern boundary. The measure enjoys tremendous local support, and represents a long-term and tangible gift for Glacier on its 100th birthday."

The letter also urges environmental cooperation across the border, and proposes a formal international agreement between both countries to protect Waterton-Glacier and the surrounding Crown of the Continent ecosystem in Montana, British Columbia and Alberta.

"To have nearly every retired superintendent from Waterton and Glacier calling for these measures is beyond significant," said Tim Stevens, Northern Rockies regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, in a written statement. "These individuals spent their entire careers managing protected areas. They understand better than anyone what steps are needed to ensure the ecological integrity and clean headwaters of Waterton-Glacier."

In 2009, proposed mining activities in the Canadian Flathead Valley gained the attention of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which voted unanimously to send an international team of scientists to investigate whether the negative effects of proposed coal strip mines warranted listing Waterton-Glacier as a "World Heritage site in Danger." The UNESCO report concluded that the proposed strip-mine would result in environmental harm to the World Heritage site.

"However, there remains unfinished work to ensure the legacy of Waterton-Glacier," the letter states.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 260-4197 or at tscott@missoulian.com.


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