A Canadian mining company's discovery last week of high-grade gold deposits north of Glacier National Park has raised alarm among environmentalists that development of the deposits could imperil Montana's Flathead River Valley and fragment North America's most prized grizzly habitat.
The discovery by MAX Resource Corp. of Vancouver, about 10 miles northwest of the park boundary in British Columbia, is the latest volley in a 30-year debate over development of the Flathead River Valley, a 1-million-acre watershed spanning the U.S.-Canada border and including much of Glacier park and Flathead National Forest.
Stuart Rogers, president of MAX Resource, said concerns over the discovery are premature and that if the company ever developed the site, it would use underground rather than open-pit mining techniques.
Moreover, Rogers said, any mining proposal would be subject to the British Columbia government's extensive regulatory review process and would have to meet a "zero discharge" requirement for the Flathead River and its tributaries.
But critics argue that is not enough. They want a moratorium on all industrial development in the region, home to North America's largest concentration of grizzly bears, as well as bull trout and other iconic Western species. Canadian environmental groups have even called on provincial leaders to designate the bottom third of the valley as a national park, with the other two-thirds zoned as a wildlife management area.
"Go for gold at the Olympics, not in the Flathead River Valley," said Sarah Cox, of Sierra Club British Columbia, referring to the upcoming Winter Games in Vancouver. "The B.C. government must put an immediate stop to gold exploration near a headwaters stream of the Flathead River and very close to the Waterton-Glacier World Heritage Site," which includes Alberta's adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park.
Those concerns were echoed by Montana Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Jon Tester (D), who last week sent letters urging Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to negotiate an agreement with Canadian leaders to establish long-term protections for the Flathead River and to conduct a federal environmental assessment of mining's effects.
"The location of this mining is alarming," the senators wrote. "This discovery brings us one step closer to what we have avoided for 30 years -- active mining ... that could cause irreparable harm to this pristine ecosystem that already faces significant ecological risk due to the impacts of climate change."
The Montana lawmakers said there is a "dire" need to protect the valley from potential industrial development along the North Fork of the Flathead River. Their letter cited a 1985 finding by the International Joint Commission that a proposed open-pit coal mine in the same location as the MAX Resource gold discovery should be prohibited because it would violate the nondegradation standard of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
"Until we are able to reach agreement with Canada on a long-term solution to this issue, we will be continually faced with the potential loss of this pristine ecosystem," the senators wrote.
Baucus and Tester both expressed alarm at MAX Resource's plan to expand exploration activities in 2010, particularly after an August acquisition brought the company's exploration area to 29 square miles.
Risk to World Heritage site
Eleven environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association and the Wilderness Society, last year petitioned the United Nations to designate the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park as "in danger" from proposed surface coal mining and coalbed methane developments upstream from the MAX Resource site.
The park -- which straddles the Montana-Alberta border and encompasses much of the Flathead River Valley -- was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations in 1995.
A U.N. delegation toured the U.S. and Canadian portions of the Flathead in September and asked representatives of both countries to submit a joint report by February identifying all mining activity in the valley, as well as other types of development, including residential, industrial and tourism development.
Among other things, the U.N. panel noted that "the integrity of the property is inextricably linked with the quality of stewardship of the adjacent areas" and that "the protection of the property must be managed within the context of this greater ecosystem."
Draft recommendations from the delegation are expected soon, but they will not be made available to the public until a final decision on the park's status is announced at a meeting next summer in Brazil, said Mechtild Rössler, chief of the North America Office of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
An "in danger" designation would increase pressure on Canadian authorities to more aggressively protect the Flathead, said Chloe O'Loughlin, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's British Columbia chapter. It would also merit a review of the province's land-use plan, which many have criticized for designating mining as the highest use of the land.
"It is a great opportunity for B.C. and Canada to garner positive international recognition," O'Loughlin said. "The whole world is watching."
O'Loughlin said British Columbia residents are as concerned as those in neighboring Montana about the discovery of extensive gold deposits in the Flathead River Valley. She cited a McAllister Opinion Research poll finding that two-thirds of East Kootenay residents support a national park designation for the southeastern portion of the Flathead Valley.
While the MAX Resource site is outside the area being considered for national park status, it is within a proposed wildlife management area where mining would be virtually banned.
Will Hammerquist, the National Parks Conservation Association's Glacier program manager, said the Flathead is a rare ecosystem that has gone largely untouched by human development throughout its history. But impacts to the area north of the U.S.-Canada border will inevitably be felt downstream.
"The biological diversity of this area is important on a global scale," Hammerquist said. "In the context of climate change, this is going to be a really strategic valley because it is very intact."
If developed, gold mines could easily be seen by visitors at the northwest entrance to Glacier park, he said. New mining developments, tailings ponds and road building, meanwhile, would disrupt wildlife migrations on both sides of the border.
"This watershed is essential to the integrity of the entire peace park, regardless of whether there is a border at the 49th parallel," Hammerquist said.
"Moose and elk do not respect that barrier, and fish spawn in the Canadian headwaters," he added. "You cannot have this kind of energy impact without cascading impacts downstream all the way to Flathead Lake."
But with gold trading at more than $1,000 an ounce, Rogers of MAX Resource said the company has good reason to follow up on the Flathead discovery.
At the same time, Rogers insisted that any mining proposal would be thoroughly vetted by Canadian federal and provincial regulators, a process that could take seven to 10 years. "Can it be done without any kind of negative impacts on the Flathead?" he said. "If it's a problem, we're not going to do it."
Rogers said such a mine would be subject to British Columbia's strict "zero-discharge rule" prohibiting releases into the Flathead River. Also, the operation would not require cyanide heap-leaching, a technique banned in Montana after some gold mines leaked cyanide, selenium and other heavy metals into nearby streams and rivers.
"Obviously, being anywhere near a river, especially the Flathead, that's always a concern," Rogers said.
If fact, Rogers added, there would be no need for leaching of any type, because high-grade operations such as those that would be used in the Flathead Valley employ conventional milling techniques to separate gold from ore. Tailings from the operation could be placed back in the mine pit, "and you don't have that big hole in the ground that everyone is concerned about," he said.
Still, critics note, mining in the western United States -- both underground and surface -- has left 40 percent of the region's headwater streams contaminated, according to U.S. EPA estimates. Of Montana's 6,000 abandoned mine sites, 300 pose a risk to human health and safety, according to the state's Department of Environmental Quality.
"The mining companies say today they do things in a safer and cleaner way," said Land Tawney, manager of the group Sportsmen United for Sensible Mining. But operations such as a Montana's Beal Mountain gold mine have left a legacy of cyanide and selenium pollution that few can forget, he said. Such metals undergo a chemical change in natural waterways, where they can then accumulate in the tissues of aquatic organisms, including fish.
Congressional efforts to reform the General Mining Act of 1872 could keep hard rock mining away from sensitive areas like Glacier park and give federal land managers broader discretion to reject mining proposals.
But even if those efforts are passed, their regulatory reach would stop short of development in the Flathead, Tawney said.