(This is the first in a series of Q & A’s on the Crown of the Continent, a 10-million-acre expanse of land that stretches from Northern Montana into Canada. Over the past decade, Tim Preso has spearheaded Earthjustice’s work to protect this untouched wilderness. To learn more about the Crown and how Earthjustice is working to protect it, check out our Crown web feature.)
EJ: How did Earthjustice became involved in protecting the Crown?
TP: Our Northern Rockies office is focused on protecting some of the last big wild places remaining in the lower-48 states. The Crown of the Continent, which encompasses Glacier National Park in the United States and Waterton National Park in Canada, is one of the largest undeveloped landscapes remaining in our country. So for us it’s a natural focal point, both to preserve wildlife and wild places and to preserve clean water that flows out of those wild places.
EJ: Most of the Crown is publicly owned. Does that affect how the area is protected?
TP: I think those protections are why we still have this amazing resource with all of this abundance of wildlife still with us today. There are large national park landscapes, there’s the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and there’s also this surrounding landscape of national forest lands that are really the connective tissue between these larger park and wilderness blocks. If those are not intact, then the connecting corridors between those larger protected areas are not secure and the wildlife becomes fragmented.
EJ: Can you give an example of an animal that’s impacted by habitat fragmentation?
TP: In the Crown there are numerous examples because it’s a place where we still have these wide-ranging species that just cannot survive in the developed landscape. We have grizzly bears, wolves, lynx, elk, bighorn sheep and wolverines, all of which are wide-ranging species that cover a lot of country to meet their dietary needs. Since a lot of the protected park and wilderness country tends to be higher elevation, many of these species need to move down slope during the winter. If those areas aren’t protected, then they just simply can’t survive.
EJ: What threats are currently facing the Crown?
TP: There are a number of threats, such as oil and gas development and urban sprawl. But a huge threat that we’re just starting to deal with is climate change. As a high-elevation landscape that was really created by glacial activity, climate change has a huge impact on this ecosystem. You don’t have to go to the Arctic to see the ongoing impacts of climate change. Glacier National Park’s namesake glaciers are already melting. The glaciers are the anchor of a larger ecological function that affects the temperature, the vegetation, etc. They’re also a constant, year-round source of cold, clean water flowing down the valley, which is responsible for strong, native fish populations. Once the glaciers melt, it’s going to be a very different ecosystem for them.
Sunrise in the Rocky Mountain Front. Rocky Mountain Peak (top right) is the highest peak in the whole front range south of Glacier National Park. Photo: Gene Sentz.
EJ: Tell me about Earthjustice’s involvement in helping to ban off-road vehicle travel in the Badger-Two Medicine region.
TP: The Badger-Two Medicine area is federal public land that’s directly adjacent to the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park. It provides range for a lot of the park’s wildlife that crosses the road, so it’s very important to wildlife and people who care about wild places. It is also an extremely important landscape for the Blackfeet tribe. The U.S. Forest Service recently issued a travel plan for the area to control access to the largely undeveloped region. Unfortunately, the area had become a magnet for heavy off-road vehicle use, which caused the erosion of trails and native trout streams. There are also a lot of sensitive wildlife species in that area, such as grizzly bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and elk, for whom having a bunch of motorized vehicles running around there doesn’t work.
The Forest Service’s decision to ban off-road vehicle travel, which includes dirt bikes, four wheel off-road vehicles and snowmobiles, was really a precedent-setting decision. Typically, the Forest Service tries to split the baby. This is one of the few circumstances we’ve seen where the Forest Service took a purely protective action. The off-road vehicle community sued to overturn that ban and we stepped in on behalf of local citizens and conservation organizations to defend the Forest Service’s decision. One, because the Badger-Two Medicine is an extremely important location and it has sensitive resources. Two, since it was a precedent-setting decision it was important that it be sustained.
EJ: Earthjustice was also successful in petitioning the United Nations to investigate mining activities proposed in the Flathead Valley, which is on the west side of Glacier National Park. What types of mining activities were proposed for that area and why did Earthjustice become involved?
TP: The Flathead Valley in British Columbia is the last undeveloped low elevation valley in southern Canada. Unfortunately, the Flathead also sits on top of major coal reserves, and for 20 years there have been proposals to construct major coal strip mines there. Study after study has concluded that those kinds of developments would inevitably and unavoidably pollute the water that flows down the Flathead River, destroy the native fish populations and disrupt the widespread use of that valley by wildlife. Both Waterton and Glacier National Parks, as part of what’s called the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, had been designated a World Heritage site under an international treaty that the U.S. and Canada signed on to. As the hosts of a World Heritage site, the U.S. and Canada have stewardship responsibilities under that treaty, and so we petitioned to the international body that administers the World Heritage treaty to examine the threats from this proposed development.
In 2009, the committee responded with a very favorable report finding that the developments would unavoidably compromise the World Heritage sites. It came right at a time when Canada was set to host the winter Olympics in Vancouver, so with the eyes of the world turned on British Columbia and this report looming, suddenly the British Columbia government decided to ban all mining and oil and gas extraction in the area. It managed to break a log jam that had been in place for literally 20 years preventing any protection in this area, so we were really excited. This petition to the World Heritage committee had a kind of domino effect. In response to Canada’s decision, the U.S. began working with energy companies that held oil and gas leases in the U.S. portion of the Flathead. Montana’s senators have worked out a series of deals that have retired 180,000 acres of oil and gas leases that previously encumbered that landscape and constituted a persistent threat, so that’s also been a huge benefit.
EJ: With so many issues affecting the Crown, how does Earthjustice decide which cases to take on?
TP: Our motto is always: the biggest, most significant, natural resources controversies are the ones that we want to be in the middle of because we think we can make a difference in helping insure an appropriate outcome. So the Flathead and the Badger-Two Medicine were natural places for us to get involved because they’re ecologically critical landscapes and increasingly rare in this increasingly developed world. To protect a place like the Crown, there’s not just one case you bring to accomplish that goal. It’s something that is an ongoing process. It requires a lot of work that adds up to a long-term protection for this irreplaceable landscape.