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Down to Earth: Tim Preso on the Crown of the Continent

Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso discusses climate change impacts in one of America’s last wild places, the Crown of the Continent.

Length: 17 min 50 sec

Recorded: March 2011

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Earthjustice Attorney Tim Preso speaks with Earthjustice staffer Jessica Knoblauch.

Over the past decade, Preso has spearheaded Earthjustice's work to protect the wild, relatively untouched area known as the Crown of the Continent. This ecosystem is a 10 million acre expanse of land that stretches from Northern Montana into Canada.

Jessica Knoblauch: Could you first start by telling me how Earthjustice became involved in protecting the Crown of the Continent ecosystem?

Tim Preso: Our Northern Rockies office is focused on protecting some of the last big wild places remaining in the lower-48 states, including the Yellowstone ecosystem and the Crown of the Continent ecosystem. The Crown of the Continent, which encompasses Glacier National Park in the United States and Waterton National Park in Canada, as well as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, is one of the largest undeveloped landscapes remaining in our country and has some of the most spectacular scenery that remains in the United States and some of the most intact wildlife populations. So for us it's a natural focal point, both to preserve wildlife and wild places where those wildlife can live and where people can recreate and clean water that flows out of those wild places.

Jessica: Most of it is publicly owned with about 20 percent of it privately owned; how does that affect how the area is protected?

Tim: Well, I think those protections are the reason why here in the year 2011 we still have this amazing resource with all this abundance of wildlife still with us today as opposed to being an artifact of history that's lost to us. There are large national park landscapes, which are protected. There is the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which is one of the largest wilderness complexes designated by Congress in the United States, which is protected. There's also this surrounding landscape of national forest lands, which are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, as well as some lands managed by other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, that are really the connective tissue between these larger park and wilderness blocks. And if those are not intact then the connecting corridors between those larger protected areas are not secure and then the wildlife that range outside the parks and their habitats become fragmented. Those areas have for years been targeted for a number of developments, including oil and gas drilling and logging and mining. So we've focused a lot of our efforts on trying to protect those areas that, though they are administered by the U.S. government on behalf of the citizens of the United States, in practice over the years a lot of those areas have been targeted for development by private companies and we've been working to protect them.

Jessica: Can you give an example of an animal that's impacted by this habitat fragmentation that can come about from logging and other industrial activities?

Tim: Sure. In the Crown of the Continent ecosystem 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 that most of the United States represents. And so we have grizzly bears and wolves and lynx and wolverines, all of which are wide-ranging species that cover a lot of country to meet their dietary needs. Not only the predators, but also elk and bighorn sheep are wide-ranging species. All of those, they do use the national park landscapes and they use the wilderness.

But it's also true that a lot of the protected park and wilderness country tends to be higher elevation. And, as you can imagine, with the Crown of the Continent occupying a position spanning the U.S.-Canada border, the winter weather is pretty harsh. And so a lot of those species need to move downslope, particularly the elk and the bighorn sheep, during the winter time in order to survive. And so when they do that they move out into this larger landscape of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. And so if those are not protected and their winter ranges aren't protected then they just simply can't survive in order to meet all of their needs during the year.

Jessica: And so in addition to habitat fragmentation, what other threats are currently facing the Crown ecosystem?

Tim: Well there are a number of things at issue in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, which we could tick off. Some of the threats that we were most concerned about 10 years ago due to a lot of our effort over the past decade have been reduced and some of them have been alleviated. For example, oil and gas development and mining development, we've had some tremendous successes at protecting this landscape from those kinds of things. At the same time, however, the human population and the community surrounding the area has grown and in large measure are drawn by all of the wonderful natural amenities that the area offers. And so you've got all the things that we see in other parts of the country where you've got a growing human population and you've got increased subdivision that chews up wildlife habitat because of course the wildlife don't differentiate between public and private land. So there's the concern of rural subdivision development and sprawl in some of these communities.

Climate change is rapidly affecting the Crown of the Continent. Grinnell Glacier is one of about 25 active glaciers remaining in Glacier National Park. (© Gene Sentz)

But I would say the thing that's come on as a huge threat that we're starting to try to deal with in one way or another 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, of course, its namesake glaciers are melting. Of a 150 glaciers that were recorded in Glacier National Park in 1850, there are only perhaps 25 active glaciers remaining today. Scientists have recorded higher winter temperatures and higher summer temperatures. Just a few years ago the scientists were predicting that all of the glaciers in Glacier National Park would be melted by 2030. They've now moved that prediction up to 2020 because of the rapid rate of melting glaciers in the park. [Listen to an audio interview with climate research ecologist Dan Fagre.]

So you sort of say, well, what does that mean? The glaciers in the park are the anchor of a larger ecological function because when you've got those glaciers it affects the temperatures in the park, it affects the vegetation because a lot of sensitive and rare plants are in these kind of glacial fringe areas that are kept cool by the air flowing off of the glaciers. And probably most significantly for a lot of people, the glaciers are a constant, year-round source of cold, clean water flowing down these valleys from these upper headwater areas where the glaciers are located. And that cold, clear water is what's responsible for strong, native fish populations that people like to fish for sport fishing and like to see for recreation. And those species depend on that cold, clear water, and once the glaciers are melted it's going to be a very different ecosystem for them.

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.

There's a growing white collar workforce that's drawn to the natural beauty of the area. And so you see communities like White Fish, Montana where suddenly you have this influx of people who are there because of the opportunities to be next door to this huge wild space and all of the natural features that it offers. And then you have a tremendous amount of visitation because of the park and the surrounding landscapes. Each year the Glacier [National] Park area alone draws two million visitors that contribute $150 million to the local economy.

It's a huge economic engine for that part of Montana and southern Canada, but it's also a tremendously important landscape for the native American tribes that still live in the area. The Blackfeet Nation has a large reservation that borders the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park and the surrounding public national forest lands. And for them the park and many of the surrounding landscapes are sacred areas that for centuries, actually for millennia, have been the sites of their key ceremonies and seasonal celebrations. On the west side you've got the Kootenai tribe with a very similar experience with the landscape. And so you've got not only a population of folks that are there, relative newcomers to enjoy all the natural amenities, but you have these native American people who have been there for literally thousands of years carrying on their traditions on that landscape.

Jessica: And speaking of people coming there to enjoy the natural amenities, Earthjustice was recently involved in helping to ban off-road vehicle travel in the Badger-Two Medicine region of northern Montana's Rocky Mountain Front. Can you talk a little about why Earthjustice took on that case?

Tim: The Badger-Two Medicine area is a part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. It's federal public land that is directly adjacent to the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park. And it shares many of the features of the park, including providing range for a lot of the park's wildlife that cross the road, and they use the Badger-Two Medicine just as much as they use Glacier [National] Park.

Two Medicine Lake, part of Glacier NP. Earthjustice was successful in helping to ban off-road vehicle travel in the Badger-Two Medicine region. (© Gene Sentz)

It is also an extremely important landscape for the Blackfeet tribe. In fact, the 90,000 acres of the Badger-Two Medicine area has been registered on the national register of historic places as a traditional cultural district for the Blackfeet because it's a place that's sort of the source of all of their beliefs about the creation of the world, and it's also a site for a lot of their ceremonies and individual vision quests and the like. And so it's very important to the tribe. And it's also very important to wildlife and people who care about wild places and wild things.

The U.S. Forest Service recently issued a travel plan for the area that was to control access to the region, which was largely an undeveloped region. It was a really precedent-setting decision because for the first time that I'm aware of they actually banned all motorized off-road use in the area. That means dirt bikes, four wheel off-road vehicles and snowmobiles were prohibited. The off-road vehicle community sued in federal court to overturn that ban. And we stepped in on behalf of local citizens and conservation organizations to defend the decision both because the Badger-Two Medicine is an extremely important location and it has resources that are very sensitive and also because since it was a precedent-setting Forest Service decision it was important that it be sustained.

So, when we think about off-road vehicle use in the area, what we've seen over the years is that area had unfortunately become a magnet for heavy off-road vehicle use that had caused a lot of trail erosion and a lot of trespassing. Many of the off-road vehicle riders were using the Badger-Two Medicine to trespass into the Bob Marshall wilderness where no motorized use is allowed. There had been erosion of native trout streams as a result of heavy vehicle use. And, there are a lot of wildlife species in that area that are very sensitive, such as grizzly bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and elk, for whom having a bunch of motorized vehicles running around there is not preserving it as a secure area.

Jessica: This was a very atypical decision of the Forest Service?

Tim: I mean, most of the time what we've seen is 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 and limited travel to non-motorized means.

Jessica: Earthjustice was also successful in petitioning the United Nations in 2008 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?

The Flathead Valley in British Columbia is the last undeveloped low elevation valley in southern Canada. (© Harvey Locke)

Tim: So the Badger-Two Medicine area is on the southeast side of the park. The Flathead area is on the northwest side of the park. So these are two areas that really bracketed Glacier National Park and affected the larger Crown of the Continent ecosystem. But the Flathead issue was particularly difficult because it involved trans-border Canada-U.S. relations and British Colombia sovereignty. And, it had been a longstanding issue for decades in that the Flathead River floats through a relatively undeveloped landscape in southern Canada across the U.S. border and then constitutes the western boundary of Glacier National Park and then flows into Flathead Lake in Montana. It drains an area of about 1600 square miles.

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 in the Flathead Valley to extract that coal. And 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.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has identified the Flathead Valley as the single most important basin for carnivores in the Rocky Mountains. 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, the World Heritage treaty, that the U.S. and Canada have signed onto. 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 to the World Heritage sites from this proposed development in the Flathead and to make a formal finding that the World Heritage site is in danger as a result of these development proposals.

In 2009, the committee responded with a very favorable report, which found that the developments that were being proposed in the Flathead would unavoidably compromise the World Heritage sites that these nations had sponsored. And it came right at a time when Canada was getting set to host the winter Olympics in Vancouver. And with the eyes of the world turned on British Columbia and this report looming over the British Columbia government, suddenly the British Columbia government made an announcement that they were reversing their policy on the Flathead and that they were going to ban all mining and oil and gas extraction in the area. It managed to break a log jam that had been in place literally for 20 years preventing any protection in this area and allowing these development proposals just to simmer along and continue to threaten the Flathead, so we were really excited about how that turned out.

In order to protect a place like the Crown of the Continent, 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 in a number of different places and often smaller scale battles that add up to a long-term protection for this irreplaceable landscape.

And what's been allowed to move forward is protection on both sides of the border. So in response to the Canadian decision to protect the Canadian Flathead, the U.S. moved forward with plans that had been kind of simmering in the background as well and began working with energy companies that held oil and gas leases in the U.S. portion of the Flathead. And Montana's two senators, Sen. Baucus (D-MT) and Sen. Tester (D-MT), have worked out a series of deals over the last year or so that have retired 180,000 acres of oil and gas leases that previously encumbered that landscape and constituted a persistent threat of development if those energy companies sought to develop those leases, so that's also been a huge benefit. This petition to the World Heritage committee had a kind of domino effect in that not only did it trigger the Canadian action, which we're very grateful for, to protect the Canadian side of the Flathead, but it also let loose a series of conservation measures on the U.S. side.

Jessica: With so many issues affecting the Crown, how does Earthjustice decide which cases to take on?

Tim: 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. And they were big issues about the fate of these landscapes.

And so for us those are key decisions that we made a long time ago, and they're long term commitments that we're not backing off from. In order to protect a place like the Crown of the Continent, 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 in a number of different places and often smaller scale battles that add up to a long-term protection for this irreplaceable landscape.

Images from the Crown of the Continent: One of the largest—and last—remaining wild places in North America, the Crown of the Continent ecosystem is a ten-million acre expanse of land whose untouched wilderness harkens back to the days of Lewis & Clark. View photos taken by conservationist Gene Sentz, who has spent three decades working to protect the Rocky Mountain Front.

Interactive Feature: Species Worth Protecting: A combination of U.S. Forest Service lands, national parks, tribal territories and private property, the Crown of the Continent links western Montana with southern Canada, encompassing some of the largest blocks of wilderness in the contiguous United States. As a fully functioning ecosystem, the Crown is home to nearly all of North America's large mammals.

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