Agreement to protect North Fork of Flathead from gold, coal mining finalized


by Rob Chaney

The deal to protect the North Fork of the Flathead from mining and energy exploration got final approval on Tuesday at a gathering in Washington, D.C., with Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer.

In addition to confirming that The Nature Conservancy and Nature Conservancy of Canada will contribute $9.4 million to reimburse mining company expenses, the gathering also announced plans for Canadian legislation to permanently protect the area.

British Columbia government representatives pledged to enact new mineral and coal land reserve regulations, a Southern Rocky Mountain Management Plan, and other guidelines that restrict mining and energy development in the Flathead watershed.

In a news release, Nature Conservancy of Canada members called their stretch of the Flathead River north of Glacier National Park "the Serengeti of the North." The 400,000-acre region supports the largest population of grizzly bears in the Canadian interior, along with 69 other mammals, 270 bird species, 25 fish species and 1,200 plant species.

"There is no other large watershed in North America like the Flathead – the richness of its waters, the abundance of its carnivores," Nature Conservancy of Canada biologist Richard Cannings said in the release. "It is a truly wild river in southern Canada. This agreement will ensure that the Flathead will stay wild and pure for generations to come."

The area has also attracted interest from oil, coal, coalbed methane and gold seekers. Two active explorations had announced potentially huge coal and gold mines in the watershed. The $9.4 million provided by the conservation groups will pay for their exploration expenses to date. The British Columbia government owns the mineral rights, and gave up an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion in royalties in the deal.

National Parks Conservation Association vice president Tony Jewett credited Baucus with sustaining 30 years of negotiations that finally produced the memorandum of understanding signed by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell last year.

"With the immediate threat of resource development now on the sidelines, both nations have a window of opportunity to put in place new agreements that will protect this globally significant area permanently," Jewett said in a press release.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also attended the Washington gathering, and praised the cross-border conservation effort.

"Our conservation challenges don't stop at the border, so it is important that our nations join together to protect our world's natural resources and treasures, including the Flathead River Basin with its pristine lakes and alpine scenery," Salazar said. "Completion of the agreement to protect the basin from mining and energy development is not only an historic event, but also a wonderful celebration for the many people who are dedicated to coordinated, sustainable protection of this important watershed."

Nature Conservancy of Canada has been active in British Columbia since 1974. In that time, it has protected more than 175,000 acres of the Canadian Rockies, negotiated agreements with timber companies to protect wildlife corridors, and worked with ranchers and foresters to protect sensitive areas while preserving traditional land uses. It is separate from The Nature Conservancy in the United States.

The Canadian group said it would contribute up to $6 million (Canadian dollars) to the effort. Its news release said most of that money would come from a partnership with the Canadian federal government called the Natural Areas Conservation Program. The program received $225 million in 2007 from the federal government to protect ecologically sensitive lands, ecosystems, wildlife and habitat.