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for people who care about the West

The fight for the Flathead

Environmental victories come in increments, not meetings

 

A six-seater Cessna flew along the western edge of Glacier National Park on a perfect morning in late June. The sky was sunny, bright blue; the valleys glowed in lush green hues. The ice on the peaks gleamed brilliantly -- a huge wild version of what a queen would wear, justifying the region’s title as "the Crown of the Continent."

"I fly all over the West," the pilot, Bruce Gordon, crackled over the headsets. "This is really unique -- quite remarkable!"

Meetings don’t get any better than this -- or anyway, it was an extension of a meeting: Gordon’s outfit, EcoFlight, and the National Parks Conservation Association were providing air tours to journalists and dignitaries attending the annual meeting of the Western Governors’ Association.

The environmentalists used the scenery -- which included bulldozed clearings and other disturbances -- to show why the ecosystem around Glacier Park needs protection from gas drilling and coal mining. They and their fellows and predecessors have been working for more than 35 years to conserve the ecosystem, which sprawls over millions of acres.

Their main focus is the Flathead River headwaters in Canada and the U.S., known as the Transboundary Flathead, a network of tributaries and forests that includes habitat for many troubled species, including bull trout, grizzlies, wolves, wolverines, mountain lions, lynx and fishers -- and billions of dollars worth of gold, as well as coal and other fossil fuels.

As the little plane flew noisily along, parks advocate Will Hammerquist and biologist John Weaver of the Wildlife Conservation Society rattled off details in terse shouts, struggling with temperamental headsets that kept cutting out. With so many habitat niches on both the wet and dry sides of the Continental Divide, "This area has the greatest diversity of carnivores in North America -- 17 species! More than Yellowstone or Alaska or anywhere else in Canada!" Weaver hollered.

"And more than a thousand species of vascular plants!" Hammerquist added.

Environmentalists have stalled many attempts to mine and drill in the headwaters, working with generations of Canadian and U.S. administrations. In the 1990s, they persuaded the United Nations to call for extra-careful management of the region. Riding the think-global spirit, they also apparently achieved a major breakthrough at last February’s Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, when B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D, signed a Memorandum of Understanding, putting much of the headwaters off-limits to drillers and miners -- if specific terms can be worked out.

ConocoPhillips has cooperated, giving up oil leases on more than 160,000 acres in the U.S. But congressional action or private donors are needed to provide millions of dollars to compensate other companies. Either that, or the Obama administration and the Canadian federal government need to sign a treaty formalizing the arrangement. As Schweitzer assessed the Flathead deal’s chances in the Hungry Horse News recently: "This is not a slam dunk."

The same general message -- protect the West’s environment, somehow! -- resonated in the lakeside ski town of Whitefish, Mont., where the governors held three days of official events focused on water, wildlife corridors and renewable energy development. Most of the current governors showed up, as did representatives of energy corporations, federal officials, more experts and environmentalists and Jag, the frisky border collie that accompanies Gov. Schweitzer. The featured speakers included Mike Connor, the head of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, who described the Obama administration’s new efforts to conserve "treasured landscapes."

The governors’ meetings tend to be more symbolic than substantial, but they help set a cooperative tone for solving problems. The nitty-gritty work goes on behind the scenes. It’s a never-ending grind, as the Crown of the Continent environmentalists know all too well: If the Flathead deal succeeds, next they’ll work on protecting a wildlife corridor northward along the spine of the Rockies to link with Canada’s Banff park complex, plus a long-desired expansion of Waterton Park just across the border from Glacier, and so on.

When it comes to the environment, there’s a lot to talk about. But as the little plane flew along, the headset chatter slowly petered out. Mostly everyone in the plane just gazed at the overwhelming scenery. It was dreamy.