New York Times: Gold Discovery Stirs Fear About Effects to Glacier NP's Headwaters

A Canadian mining company’s discovery last week of high-grade gold deposits north of Glacier National Park has raised alarm among environmentalists that development of the deposits could imperil Montana’s Flathead River Valley and fragment North America’s most prized grizzly habitat.

The discovery by MAX Resource Corp. of Vancouver, about 10 miles northwest of the park boundary in British Columbia, is the latest volley in a 30-year debate over development of the Flathead River Valley, a 1-million-acre watershed spanning the U.S.-Canada border and including much of Glacier park and Flathead National Forest.

Stuart Rogers, president of MAX Resource, said concerns over the discovery are premature and that if the company ever developed the site, it would use underground rather than open-pit mining techniques.

Moreover, Rogers said, any mining proposal would be subject to the British Columbia government’s extensive regulatory review process and would have to meet a “zero discharge” requirement for the Flathead River and its tributaries.

But critics argue that is not enough. They want a moratorium on all industrial development in the region, home to North America’s largest concentration of grizzly bears, as well as bull trout and other iconic Western species. Canadian environmental groups have even called on provincial leaders to designate the bottom third of the valley as a national park, with the other two-thirds zoned as a wildlife management area.

“Go for gold at the Olympics, not in the Flathead River Valley,” said Sarah Cox, of Sierra Club British Columbia, referring to the upcoming Winter Games in Vancouver. “The B.C. government must put an immediate stop to gold exploration near a headwaters stream of the Flathead River and very close to the Waterton-Glacier World Heritage Site,” which includes Alberta’s adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park.

Those concerns were echoed by Montana Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Jon Tester (D), who last week sent letters urging Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to negotiate an agreement with Canadian leaders to establish long-term protections for the Flathead River and to conduct a federal environmental assessment of mining’s effects.

“The location of this mining is alarming,” the senators wrote. “This discovery brings us one step closer to what we have avoided for 30 years — active mining … that could cause irreparable harm to this pristine ecosystem that already faces significant ecological risk due to the impacts of climate change.”

The Montana lawmakers said there is a “dire” need to protect the valley from potential industrial development along the North Fork of the Flathead River. Their letter cited a 1985 finding by the International Joint Commission that a proposed open-pit coal mine in the same location as the MAX Resource gold discovery should be prohibited because it would violate the nondegradation standard of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.

“Until we are able to reach agreement with Canada on a long-term solution to this issue, we will be continually faced with the potential loss of this pristine ecosystem,” the senators wrote.

Baucus and Tester both expressed alarm at MAX Resource’s plan to expand exploration activities in 2010, particularly after an August acquisition brought the company’s exploration area to 29 square miles.

Risk to World Heritage site

Eleven environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association and the Wilderness Society, last year petitioned the United Nations to designate the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park as “in danger” from proposed surface coal mining and coalbed methane developments upstream from the MAX Resource site.

The park — which straddles the Montana-Alberta border and encompasses much of the Flathead River Valley — was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations in 1995.

A U.N. delegation toured the U.S. and Canadian portions of the Flathead in September and asked representatives of both countries to submit a joint report by February identifying all mining activity in the valley, as well as other types of development, including residential, industrial and tourism development.

Among other things, the U.N. panel noted that “the integrity of the property is inextricably linked with the quality of stewardship of the adjacent areas” and that “the protection of the property must be managed within the context of this greater ecosystem.”

Draft recommendations from the delegation are expected soon, but they will not be made available to the public until a final decision on the park’s status is announced at a meeting next summer in Brazil, said Mechtild Rössler, chief of the North America Office of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

An “in danger” designation would increase pressure on Canadian authorities to more aggressively protect the Flathead, said Chloe O’Loughlin, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s British Columbia chapter. It would also merit a review of the province’s land-use plan, which many have criticized for designating mining as the highest use of the land.

“It is a great opportunity for B.C. and Canada to garner positive international recognition,” O’Loughlin said. “The whole world is watching.”

O’Loughlin said British Columbia residents are as concerned as those in neighboring Montana about the discovery of extensive gold deposits in the Flathead River Valley. She cited a McAllister Opinion Research poll finding that two-thirds of East Kootenay residents support a national park designation for the southeastern portion of the Flathead Valley.

While the MAX Resource site is outside the area being considered for national park status, it is within a proposed wildlife management area where mining would be virtually banned.

Will Hammerquist, the National Parks Conservation Association’s Glacier program manager, said the Flathead is a rare ecosystem that has gone largely untouched by human development throughout its history. But impacts to the area north of the U.S.-Canada border will inevitably be felt downstream.

“The biological diversity of this area is important on a global scale,” Hammerquist said. “In the context of climate change, this is going to be a really strategic valley because it is very intact.”

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