Troubled Waters

Photographers focus on Canada's Flathead River Valley to preserve Glacier National Park.


By Amy Leinbach Marquis


Just north of Glacier National Park, the rivers and streams in Canada’s Flathead River Valley run so pure that you can cup your hands in the water and drink it straight from the source. Endangered bull trout and some of the last remaining genetically-pure populations of westslope cutthroat trout thrive here. And so many carnivores roam this region—including more inland grizzlies than anywhere else in North America—that the place has been dubbed North America’s Serengeti.

Such vast, pristine wilderness sounds too good to be true, which is why the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) spent ten days focusing their cameras on its wildlife and natural scenery. The images produced by this RAVE, or Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition, are designed to bring awareness to the region and shed light on forces that threaten its ecosystem—and in the Flathead, those threats are serious.

Just upstream at the valley’s headwaters, mining companies are proposing two potentially catastrophic projects: Coal-bed methane drilling, which produces millions of gallons of toxic water as a by-product; and strip mining that shaves off a mountaintop to expose thin layers of coal.

“When you move an entire mountaintop, you disrupt the entire ecosystem,” says Trevor Frost, iLCP’s RAVE director. “And everything is connected in the Flathead. If the river gets polluted, then fish habitat is destroyed, and everything else to starts to break down.”

“Mining here would be a tragic mistake,” says Will Hammerquist, program manager at NPCA’s Glacier field office. “The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 states that neither Canada nor the U.S. shall pollute rivers that flow into the other country. And both countries made a further commitment to protect these parks when Waterton-Glacier was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is the world’s first peace park, and an international treasure worth protecting.”

Thankfully, most Canadians agree. In fact for decades, the country’s political leaders have wanted to expand Waterton Lakes National Park to include a portion the Flathead River Valley—but objections from industry and local politicians have halted this effort. A recent poll, however, shows that more than 70 percent of local residents are opposed to mining in the valley and support a national park expansion. In the meantime, an international team of scientists will travel to the region this fall to assess potential impacts of proposed mining activities on the World Heritage site.

“We need strong, credible images to give a voice to places that cannot speak for themselves,” says Cristina Mittermeier, iLCP’s executive director. “It’s so easy for mining companies to claim that there’s nothing in the Flathead—so we used our cameras to show how much there is to be lost. Images are irrefutable evidence of the beauty of our planet and the critical resources we can’t afford to lose.”

To learn more about mining threats to Glacier National Park and to see more photos from the RAVE, visit www.npca.org/glacierendangered.

This article appears in the Fall 2009 issue.

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