Possible energy development on Canadian federal land has rattled the security of a no-mining agreement that Montana and British Columbia made to protect the Flathead River watershed.

“We discovered that this 6,000-hectare (14,826-acre) parcel in the Flathead headwaters is not covered,” Sarah Cox of the Sierra Club British Columbia said Tuesday. “It’s very close to the source of the Flathead River, and the Flathead has some of the purest water in the world. It’s in the region the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has identified as critically important to wildlife as they move up and down the Rocky Mountains from your Glacier National Park to Canada’s Rocky Mountain National Park.”

In 2011, Montana and B.C. officials signed a memorandum of understanding prohibiting energy development on about 400,000 acres of land between Fernie, B.C., and Glacier Park. The North Fork of the Flathead River forms Glacier’s western border. The Elk River watershed just to the west in British Columbia has seen extensive coal development and environmental degradation.

The Dominion Coal Blocks, as they’re known, sit on the northwestern edge of the B.C.-Montana protected zone. According to B.C. parliamentary records, the province granted them to the Canadian federal government to underwrite the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s western expansion in 1897. They reportedly contain 8.6 billion tons of coal – potentially 10 percent of western Canada’s entire coal reserve.

B.C. and Canadian federal authorities raised more than $10 million to buy back Flathead watershed exploration rights from mining companies interested in gold and coal development there. That included nearly $2 million contributed from the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy.

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus has drafted a bill confirming U.S. federal support for a mining development ban on the Montana portion of the watershed. That bill hasn’t had a vote in the Senate yet, but may see action in the last weeks of 2012. Nearly all the federal and state land along the North Fork of the Flathead has already been voluntarily put off-limits for energy exploration.

“Protecting the North Fork permanently so future generations can enjoy our outdoor heritage has been a cause Max has been passionate about for four decades,” a Baucus staff member wrote in an email Tuesday. “He’s looking for every appropriate opportunity to move his North Fork Watershed Protection Act forward.”

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A spokesman for the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas said Tuesday that the provincial government had no power over development on the Dominion Coal Blocks.

“The Flathead Valley is a special and environmentally sensitive area in both British Columbia and the United States, and the Province has recognized it as such,” a statement from the ministry read. “The Province is in discussions with Natural Resources Canada (the Canadian federal energy department) to resolve issues related to the ownership and management of the Dominion Coal Blocks and its resources which are located in the Kootenay region.”

Natural Resources Canada recently posted new maps of the region showing potential coalbed methane development, according to Sierra Club B.C.’s Cox. Canadian mining companies have been actively pursuing sales of coal to China.

“It’s been quite a controversial issue in British Columbia,” Cox said. “They were considering having Chinese workers brought to work in underground coal mines due to the lack of skilled labor here. And B.C. is looking to increase the number of coal mines in the province.”

National Parks Conservation Association program manager Michael Jamison said he didn’t think the Canadian federal coal lands put the British Columbia-Montana agreement at risk. But it did raise concerns about land protection around the national parks.

“I think (Gov. Brian) Schweitzer and Premier (Gordon) Campbell were able to negotiate a historic agreement across this boundary, and I don’t think offering federal mineral leases in a drainage where the province has already excluded that type of development honors the spirit of that historic agreement,” Jamison said. “It highlights the fact that conservation in the trans-boundary Flathead is not complete. The Canadians in the federal sphere still have some questions that are going to require answers. And on the U.S. side, we still haven’t provided the reciprocity we promised with passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act.”

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

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