North Fork Flathead protection latest in growing list of Northern Rockies conservation efforts

2010-02-14T07:00:00Z North Fork Flathead protection latest in growing list of Northern Rockies conservation effortsBy ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
February 14, 2010 7:00 am  • 

Montanans call the river on Glacier National Park's western border the North Fork of the Flathead. Canadians call the same water the Southern Flathead.

They both say it runs through the Crown of the Continent. And that crown has been adding a lot of jewels to its collection lately.

The latest sparkler came as Vancouver, British Columbia, prepared to welcome the world to the Winter Olympics. On Tuesday, the administration of Premier Gordon Campbell declared the Canadian side of the Flathead River off limits to mining and hydrocarbon development.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer quickly followed with a pledge to give the same protection to his state's piece of the river.

Sens. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester were right behind with declarations of draft legislation to do just that.

As momentous as Campbell's announcement was, it's also part of a conservation trend sweeping across the Rocky Mountains on both sides of the border.

Canadian conservationists have been pushing the Castles Special Place initiative to protect the mountains north of Waterton Lakes National Park. They've also been trying to extend Waterton's boundary west to the Flathead River. And then there's the big-umbrella project known as the "Yellowstone to the Yukon Initiative" which seeks to protect wild areas along a 2,000-mile swath of the Rocky Mountains.

In the United States, Plum Creek Timber Co. is close to concluding its Legacy Project, which transfers 310,000 acres of corporate logging country to public and conservation ownership in the Seeley-Swan, Blackfoot and Clark Fork drainages of western Montana. Last summer, energy companies surrendered exploration leases on 111,000 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front east of Great Falls.

"There's a constant theme - people really want to keep this landscape the way it is today," said Bob Ekey, director of the Wilderness Society's Northern Rockies region in Bozeman. "And you can't do nothing. You have to take some kind of action."

And you don't have to wait for government to act either. Landowner-based projects like the Blackfoot Challenge and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Proposal have been securing thousands of acres of ranch and farm land as wildlife habitat. The Nature Conservancy of Canada has been doing similar work around Crowsnest Pass.

"When you look at the richness of biodiversity and the natural beauty, there are very few places like this left across the world," said Richard Moy, retired director of water policy planning for the Montana Department of Natural Resources, who has spent decades working to preserve the Flathead River drainage's pristine nature. "People are realizing if you really want to protect this treasured landscape, we need to do more work."

***

On a map, the Crown of the Continent stretches from the Blackfoot River drainage near Missoula to Canmore, Alberta, just below Banff National Park. About 40 percent of that is in Canada.

Rivers there drain into three oceans: the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic. It retains almost all the major animal species Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered 200 years ago. Its 1,200 vascular plant species are comparable to the African Serengeti for diversity. Topographically, it spans prairie potholes and alpine peaks. It's the last stronghold of vanishing species such as the grizzly bear and bull trout.

It also encompasses millions of acres of forest, proven oil and hydrocarbon reserves, gold deposits, and perhaps one-fifth of the world's metallurgic coal reserves - necessary for smelting steel.

On the political map, there's the World Heritage Site of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. There's the Bob Marshall Wilderness, which was one of the first big places on the planet to be exempted from human development. There's the Scapegoat Wilderness, which was the first citizen-petitioned wilderness to win governmental approval (previous areas were designated by the U.S. Forest Service or other government agencies). And there are several game ranges along the Rocky Mountain Front that Montanans designated almost 100 years ago.

***

The real sea change, though, has come in recent years.

John Bergenske, director of the British Columbian conservation organization WildSight, believes the public interest in preserving lands has been outpacing the desire to develop them.

"There's a much broader recognition at long last of the values here that far outweigh some of these other uses," he said. "It's not just because it's nice to have wilderness. For the people who live and work here, the benefits derived from out our back door are seen as greater than these development options."

That opinion was shared, although from a different perspective, by Pierre Gratton of the Mining Association of British Columbia. He was not happy about taking the Flathead drainage off the table, but not surprised either.

"It (the Flathead) was a sensitive area, ecologically and politically, and a lot of people were not going there," Gratton said from his Vancouver office. "And there's no shortage of opportunities in the Elk Valley. Where they're operating now, they have decades, if not centuries, of coal deposits to keep them going."

What concerned him was the lack of participation his industry got in the decision, and the loss of future resource opportunities.

"We've overtaken forestry as the most important part of the economy," Gratton said of British Columbia's mining industry. "Why do something that would discourage the sector from investment?"

A big part of that work was rethinking what was valuable in the mountains. British Columbia Premier Campbell came to power in 2001 as a mining advocate, and his administration swept away several international agreements protecting the Flathead River area.

"For them to make 180-degree turn and say we're going to lose a lot of resources here but we think it's important, it's going to be on the world stage, that was major," Moy said. "We need to give British Columbia and Campbell enormous credit for understanding the value the trans-boundary area will have for future generations."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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