The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations voted today to promptly send a mission to Canada to investigate threats to Glacier National Park (Montana) and Waterton Lakes National Park (Alberta) posed by coal mining and gas drilling proposals in British Columbia's adjacent Flathead River Valley.
Together these parks make up Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a U.N. World Heritage Site that spans the U.S.-Canadian border. Grizzlies, wolves, wolverines, lynx and many at-risk species depend on the pristine habitats and pure water of the two parks and surrounding wilderness. The Flathead River Valley, extending north from Glacier National Park into British Columbia, has the highest density of grizzly bears in North America's interior, and some of the purest water in the world.
The committee's action was in response to a petition written by Earthjustice on behalf of eleven environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada. Last week, over 53,000 people in the U.S. and Canada wrote in support of the petition to decision makers in both countries, asking them to protect the parks from the upstream mining and drilling.
"People on both sides of the border don't want mountain-top removal coal mines and gas flares belching polluted air and water into the cleanest natural areas in the Northern Rockies," said Jessica Lawrence of Earthjustice. "There are world class national parks on both sides of the border that would be polluted by energy and mining development in the Canadian Flathead."
One proposal under consideration by British Columbia's government is for an open pit coal mine less than 25 miles upstream from the park. More than 325 million tons of waste rock would be dumped into a tributary of the Flathead River that forms the western border of the park and provides critical habitat for threatened bull trout. Any leakage from the waste dumps would send toxic sludge into Glacier National Park within 24 hours.
Other mineral exploration is underway even closer to the park boundary. Proposed mining and drilling in the Canadian Flathead Valley would harm the parks' wildlife by disrupting the seasonal migration of trout, moose and elk, and destroying habitat for wide-ranging species such as grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines.
The 21-member committee voted unanimously for a 2009 World Heritage Centre mission that will "evaluate and provide recommendations on the requirements for ensuring the protection" of Waterton-Glacier, citing concern about the threats that mining and energy development within the Flathead Valley would have on water and ecosystem connectivity. It asked Canada and the US to work together to prepare a report--by February 1, 2010--that examines all Flathead River Valley energy and mining proposals and their cumulative impacts.
The committee noted that:
"The integrity of the property is inextricably linked with the quality of stewardship of the adjacent areas within the international Crown of the Continent ecosystem... the protection of the property must be managed within the context of this greater ecosystem."
"We applaud the committee's decision and encourage Canada and British Columbia to take swift action to ensure that Waterton-Glacier does not become North America's only World Heritage Site in Danger," said Ryland Nelson of the British Columbia conservation group Wildsight. Nelson attended the Seville session on behalf of the petitioners.
"This is an important step forward," said Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association, who also attended the Seville session. "Today the United Nations recognized that both Canada and the United States have a global responsibility to protect Waterton-Glacier, the world's first international peace park."
Said Sarah Cox of Sierra Club BC, "Declaration of an immediate no-mining reserve in the Flathead Valley would send a strong message to the international community that British Columbia takes this decision very seriously, and is committed to land-use solutions in the Flathead that do not convert world-class wildlife habitat into a coal mine."