Canadian legislation to protect the Flathead River Basin from mining and energy development has formally passed the British Columbia Parliament.

The Flathead Watershed Area Conservation Act received royal assent on Monday evening. The bill cements the Canadian half of an agreement between British Columbia and Montana to maintain the wild and scenic character of the Flathead River, the north fork of which forms the western border of Glacier National Park.

"A healthy and free-flowing Flathead river is good for people and wildlife on both sides of the border," said Dr. Richard Jeo, a biologist and director for The Nature Conservancy's Canada Program. "This binational effort gives hope to communities whose economies rely on the river and to iconic wildlife that represent the spirit of the West."

The U.S.-based Nature Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy of Canada together pledged $9.4 million to buy out the rights of some mining companies prospecting for gold and coal in the Canadian Flathead. In Montana, oil companies have voluntarily surrendered more than 80 percent of recorded oil leases along the North Fork of the Flathead River by Glacier National Park.

"The Flathead is the finest expression of many people coming together with a common goal in mind," said Linda Hannah, British Columbia regional vice president of The Nature Conservancy of Canada. "And this was a good approach that lets activities important to the region's local economy continue."

The bill still allows for logging, recreation, hunting and guiding to occur in the river basin. But it paves the way for more protection of the area's distinctive ecosystem.

"It's a celebrated area of British Columbia," Hannah said. "It is seen as having tremendous connective corridors for wildlife, huge mountain vistas, an undammed river and the highest density of big mammals in interior North America. The policymakers deserve a lot of credit in recognizing this."

It also puts into law 30 years of effort to get the river basin protected, according to Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association.

"Canada's historic protection of these headwaters is an important reminder of our need for similar protections on Montana's public lands, upstream from Glacier," Jamison said. "Canada has acted, and now it's our turn. We have an international obligation to reciprocate, and we have a bill in Congress that would do just that."

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has written a bill to confirm the Flathead's protection from mining and energy development in Montana. SB233 has not reached the Senate floor.

"Protecting the North Fork permanently without asking American taxpayers to foot the bill remains a top priority for me," Baucus said in an email. "I'm pleased to see any progress on the Canadian side and will continue to fight to make sure we preserve the North Fork for Montana's economy and for our kids and grandkids."

While SB233 has bipartisan support and doesn't require federal spending, it's been pushed aside by congressional budget battles.

Royal assent is the Canadian version of a bill getting signed by the governor and becoming law. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell together signed a plan in 2010 committing both governments to protect the river basin. But the memorandum of understanding lacked the force of law on either side of the border.

British Columbian mining companies have operated major coal and other mineral mines in the Elk River basin just west of the Flathead. In 2009, a UNESCO review team declared that similar development in the Flathead would irreparably damage the ecology of Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and Glacier in the U.S., which together form the world's first international peace park.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada has already raised $4.7 million of its commitment to the buyout. In Montana, Nature Conservancy Director Kat Imhoff said U.S. donors had raised $1.8 million to date.

"We'll be looking to our donors over the next couple years to finish the fundraising," Imhoff said. "And we want to keep building on this. We've got this piece of the picture filled in. But we still want to work on issues like trans-boundary wildlife management. We're hoping we can see more cooperation building out of this."

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