Moving Mountains

How do you protect a national park whose biggest threat comes from energy development in another country?

By Steve Thompson

The sharp crack of splintering pine rouses me from a deep, restful sleep. Lifting out of my down sleeping bag, I watch Dan Weinberg take another swing of the axe. By the time I crawl out of my tent, the state senator from Montana has kindled a small blaze against the morning chill.

The sun hasn’t yet risen in Canada’s Flathead Valley, the headwaters of Glacier National Park. But Weinberg is looking chipper in the faint morning light beside our streamside camp, six miles north of the American border and far from any human neighbors. “I haven’t dreamt that well in months,” Weinberg says. “That creek told me stories all night.”

In time, our companions are stirred to action by the acrid smell of coffee boiled in a fire­side pot. Around the sputtering flames, Weinberg and I are joined by two legislators from British Columbia, a policy advisor to Montana’s governor, and a couple of naturalists from Wildsight—a grassroots conservation group in British Columbia. We have all day to explore two spots on the Canadian side of this broad wilderness valley, where a couple of high-pro­file proposals have gained significant attention on both sides of the border. First, we’ll hike into a part of British Columbia that Wild-sight wants to secure as a new national park or wildlife sanctuary. Then we’ll explore an adja­cent area that international energy companies want to convert into open-pit coalmines and a network of coal-bed methane gas wells. as we munch huckleberry pancakes, we ponder the implications of these two wildly divergent options and how it all came to this.

Although Montana and British Colum­bia are neighbors, we are mostly strangers to each other. so, too, are the nearby commu­nities in southwestern Alberta, just east of the peaks looming above our camp. Socially and politically, borders are significant barri­ers, but to the wild animals that abound here, these boundaries mean nothing. if passports were required of critters, the grizzly bear, elk, mountain goats, and cutthroat trout of the Flathead would all hold dual citizenship.

Twice the size of Vermont, this cross-border region is a climatic mixing zone, where wet Pacific storms collide with arctic blasts and more moderate thermals seep in from the south. Just a few miles east of ancient cedar rainforests in Glacier’s McDonald Valley and British Columbia’s Elk Valley, the moun­tains crash in waves across North America’s greatest remaining expanse of native mixed-grass and fescue prairie, sticky with wild pink geraniums. in such diversity can be found the continent’s highest concentration of mammalian predators: 17 carnivores and a multitude of prey species that nourish them. At the core of this ecosystem beats the heart of Waterton-Glacier international Peace Park. Without the heart, the ecosystem would per­ish. But without the other vital organs and critical appendages, Glacier would wither. The challenge: preserving a sprawling ecosystem that contains more than 100,000 residents, hundreds of species, and millions in potential energy reserves, all of it straddling two coun­tries with unsettled views on how it might best be managed.

At one point, protecting these lands uni­fied the two countries. Canada established Waterton lakes National Park in 1895, and the U.s. Congress established Glacier National Park in 1910, inspired by the writ­ings of one of America’s foremost conservation voices, George Bird Grinnell. In his writings, Grinell dubbed this region the “Crown of the Continent” and told of a single alpine peak that sheds its melting snow into three seas: the Pacific ocean, Hudson Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. Recognizing the flow of nature across the international border, rotary Club members in Alberta and Montana envisioned a merging of the two parks. in 1932, these community leaders persuaded the U.s. Con­gress and Canadian Parliament to formally marry Waterton and Glacier as the world’s first international peace park—a permanent commitment to peaceful relations and eco­system preservation.

More than 70 years later, NPCa’s state of the Parks assessment found that the peace park’s long-term ecological health relies on its unbroken connection to adjacent forests and wildlands, but because of quirks of political history, it is missing a huge puzzle piece. and as you might guess, plenty of people have their eyes on that missing piece.

Eating flapjacks around Dan Weinberg’s campfire, our conversation veers between pol­itics and biology, and how the gaps between the two were formed so many years ago. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, American and British negotiators agreed that their western territories should be separated by the watershed divide between the Missouri-Mississippi basin and the Hudson Bay basin. In such a remote, rugged region, however, it was easier to map the border from afar with a horizontal line. So in 1818, the countries agreed to divide themselves without regard to natural geography: the 49th Parallel.

This east-west border cuts across the broken ridges and peaks of the Continen­tal Divide, which runs north and south and separates the provinces of Alberta and Brit­ish Columbia, creating an ecosystem with a jumble of powerful governing bodies. Glacier protects major watersheds on both sides of the Continental Divide in Montana. In Alberta, Waterton protects the east side of the moun­tains. But British Columbia is not included in the peace park.

For decades, British Columbia’s Flathead Valley has been an unknown and rarely vis­ited region separated from paved roads and small towns by rugged mountain passes. Until recently, this no-man’s land was so wild and inaccessible that its fossil fuels were left untouched. But as prices for oil, gas, and coal have risen, energy extraction has become more feasible. The Canadian Flathead has emerged from obscurity into the glare of controversy. as we near the end of the carbon frontier, it’s becoming clear that this land must be pro­tected or it will be drilled.

Fortunately, a few people saw this com­ing. In 2002, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called for Parks Canada to establish a backcountry wilderness that would become part of Waterton-Glacier international Peace Park. But the provincial government had other ideas. British Columbia’s 2003 land-management plan identifies mining and gas drilling as the top priority for the region. Fractured layers of coal infused with coal-bed methane gas were simply too valuable to lock away forever; the expansion of the peace park was put on hold.

As our international contingent contin­ued its hiking expedition, we saw the reasons up close, viewing an open alpine ridge that is targeted for wholesale removal by Cline Min­ing Corp., a Toronto-based coal company. We also passed over underground coalfields that companies like Chevron, shell, and BP were scoping for methane drilling. Later, we would hike in the proposed park.

Although the Canadian Flathead has no legal protection, British Columbia’s govern­ment has twice put the brakes on coalfield development in recent years. The coal found here is particularly well suited to furnaces used in steel mills, so Cline planned to ship it overseas to manufacturers in China, where booming demand has led to soaring steel prices. In 2004, however, the British Colum­bia government put a ten-year moratorium on mining along the border, prompted largely by strong local opposition and formal com­plaints from the U.S. state Department about impacts downstream.

But deep in the mountains farther north of the border, Cline proposed a third open-pit coalmine. And in the same area, BP (the world’s third largest petroleum company, for­merly known as British Petroleum) announced an accord with the British Columbia govern­ment, which provided exclusive rights to drill for methane gas in the Flathead and adjacent Elk river Valley. Montana and Glacier park officials protested, citing the negative effects of industrial infrastructure and pollution on the region’s fish, wildlife, and sparkling waters. In February 2008, plans for methane drilling in the Flathead were temporarily halted, and the Canadian government has invited U.S. and Montana leaders to participate in a formal review of the energy proposals.

Strong American opposition to coal devilment in the headwaters of Glacier has clearly made a difference, but it has grated some of British Columbia’s leaders. Still, many Canadians continue to encourage American engagement, noting that each country has legitimate concerns about energy exploration in the other. For example, the Canadian government has joined American conservation leaders who oppose oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because of its impact on border-crossing caribou.

And what’s good for the Canada goose has also been good for Montana’s gander. In recognition of the region’s wildlife and wilderness values, the U.S. Congress Congress to do the same on the west side of the mountains. A similar consensus was emerging around the campfire as we gathered for a second starlit night following our explorations of the proposed park and coalfield developments. The hope is that residents and visitors will embrace the international significance of the land beneath their feet. It’s a hope that may have been best expressed by Corky Evans, the long-time legislator from southeastern British Columbia: “If there’s any place that our two nations should agree to protect, this has to be it.” 

Generations Before the Borders

Most people think of Glacier National Park as a wilderness park—a natural area first and foremost. But the routes traveled by its waters and its wildlife have also been traversed by people for thousands of years, making The Crown of the Continent a cultural treasure trove. Just ask Liz Gravelle. A few miles south of her home in Grasmere, British Columbia, a border slashes across the traditional territory of her people. An honored elder of the Ktunaxa First Nation, Gravelle’s mother and father were tribal members from bands on either side of the border. In Montana, the Ksanka band of the Ktunaxa (ta-NA-hah), is also known as the Kootenai Tribe.

For millennia, Gravelle’s people crossed three major mountain ranges to hunt bison on the prairie. The ancient Buffalo Cow Trail climbed east out of the glacier-carved Rocky Mountain Trench, where Eureka, Montana, nestles today. They forded the North Fork of the Flathead, where the best-preserved section of trail crosses the northwestern corner of Glacier National Park before crossing into British Columbia and over the mountains into Alberta and Waterton National Park.

Speaking in her tribe’s own language, Gravelle, 85, will tell you about childhood years picking berries and catching fish, walking her people’s ancient trails, and reaching the remote Flathead River, or “Coyote is Sitting There” as she would say. Gravelle and the Ktunaxa people still have a claim to these lands, and a treaty with the Canadian and British Columbian governments has yet to be settled. So the tribe still wields a big stick with regard to development pro­posals. Gravelle expresses a particular concern about plans to dig for coal and drill for gas where the coyote sits. “You go up there and the water will be bad,” She forewarns. “Someday water will be more valuable than the gas, oil, and coal.”

Today, Gravelle is one of about 50 people who still speak the tribe’s language, an isolated tongue unrelated to any other in the world, as remote as the rugged landscape of her heritage. In recent years she has been recording her native language and stories in a race to protect both from extinction. “At the time of Creation, we were given our language and this territory to care for,” says Gravelle. “Our language and the land go together.” And if she’s got anything to say about it, both of them will continue to thrive for generations to come.

Geotourism: Keeping Unique Places Unique

“What’s special about your place, and what are you doing to keep it that way?” That’s the question that NPCA recently posed to the residents of the Crown of the Continent as part of a unique partner­ship with National Geographic Society. The result is a “geotourism” map that tells the stories of an amazingly diverse ecosystem where the Rocky Mountains cross the international border.

Actually, the map is more like a guidebook on a single piece of paper that unfolds for days—each panel revealing more details about the region’s environmental treasures, cultural heritage, local businesses, indigenous peoples, regional cuisine, and agri­culture. NPCA’s Glacier Field Office led the broad-based effort that engaged dozens of local partners, including business and con­servation groups, historical societies, tribal elders, universities, Glacier and Waterton National Parks, and other public land and wildlife agencies.

The map and accompanying website ( revolve around the concept of “geotourism,” pioneered by National Geographic a few years ago. It is an antidote to the unfortunate real­ity that many “authentic” or “unspoiled” places lose their distinctive cultural and environmental character once they’ve been discovered. Instead of chain restaurants and watered-down tours, geotourism partnerships aim to immerse travelers in the places, experiences, and stories that make a place unique. The goal is to sustain and enhance local character rather than homogenize the travel experience.

For Glacier National Park to be protected for future generations, it must remain naturally connected with surrounding lands and watersheds, and that requires the commitment of nearby com­munities and millions of annual visitors. Fortunately, long-term conservation of this region’s nature and culture makes good eco­nomic sense. But for the growing numbers of residents and visitors, it’s about more than that: It’s about passing a shared international heritage on to our grandchildren and beyond.

Steve Thompson is a senior program manager in NPCA's Glacier Field Office in Whitefish, Montana, where he has worked for seven years, following stints as a park ranger and firefighter in Zion, Isle Royale, and North Cascades National Parks.

This article appears in the Summer 2008 issue.

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