NATIONAL PARKS:

Planned British Columbia coal mine 'on hold' after U.N. appeal

The United Nations has asked the United States and Canada to block a proposal for a coal mine upstream from a World Heritage Site shared by both nations, and there are signs the countries are paying heed.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is concerned about Cline Mining Corp.'s plans for an open-pit coal mine in British Columbia's Flathead River Valley. UNESCO asked Canada to freeze Cline's application until the countries review the plan's environmental impacts and announced its intention to send a U.N. study team last February.

The Flathead Valley is rich in coal and coalbed methane, but it shares a watershed with Montana's Glacier National Park and Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park, whose wilderness areas and wildlife earned a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1995. Environmental groups that have long battled energy companies in the region say mining would damage resources the designation was intended to protect.

There are signs UNESCO's latest actions have grabbed the attention of Canadian and U.S. authorities. The British Columbia government has put Cline's application "effectively on hold," said David Karn, spokesman for the province's Environmental Assessment Office. The U.S. and Canadian federal governments have also agreed to conduct a joint assessment of the area by 2010.

Cline representatives did not return repeated phone calls and e-mails requesting a comment.

Even if Cline's bid is foiled, environmental groups say, the World Heritage Site will remain imperiled until British Columbia changes its land-use plan to ban mining in the Flathead River Valley. The groups are backed by the U.S. National Park Service and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

"The Cline mine is a symptom of a land-use plan that doesn't recognize the international and global significance of this valley," said Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association, which along with Earthjustice, the British Columbia chapter of the Sierra Club and other groups petitioned UNESCO to take action.

Karn said his agency could not yet comment on future plans for the valley.

The groups want UNESCO to formally declare the heritage site "in danger," a designation that indicates the host nations have provided inadequate protections. The designation is aimed at bringing international pressure on the provincial government and energy companies, Earthjustice's Jessica Lawrence said.

Lawrence noted that energy developers backed off a planned mine outside of Yellowstone National Park, another heritage site, after the United Nations declared the park endangered in the mid-1990s.

Lawrence said that if British Columbia does modify its land-use plan, the groups will drop their UNESCO petition. "Our goal is not to see [the site] listed as 'in danger'; our goal is to have it protected," Lawrence said. With UNESCO's latest action, she said, "we took a big step in that direction."