NATIONAL PARKS:

British Columbia vows ban on mining, drilling near Glacier

Correction appended.

British Columbia won't allow energy and mineral exploration in the headwaters of Glacier National Park, the province's top official promised yesterday.

At issue is the province's management plan for the Flathead River Valley, a million-acre watershed straddling the border of Montana and British Columbia.

In Montana, which controls nearly two-thirds of the watershed, the land is off limits to energy development to protect Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest. But British Columbia's plan allows companies to propose development.

British Columbia Lt. Gov. Steven Point pledged to change the provincial plan yesterday, saying the province would work with Montana on conservation guidelines. Under the new plan, "mining, oil and gas development and coalbed gas extraction will not be permitted in British Columbia's Flathead Valley," he said during the annual Throne Speech.

The valley is coveted by energy companies wanting access to coal, coalbed methane and hardrock minerals. But environmentalists say energy development in Glacier's headwaters would be disastrous for natural resources and wildlife.

The two sides collided last December after MAX Resource Corp. struck gold in the valley. The company insisted any extraction would occur through underground mines with no discharge into the Flathead, but environmentalists and U.S. Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Jon Tester (D) of Montana pressured the province to ban development (Land Letter, Dec. 17, 2009).

MAX President Stuart Rogers said Point's announcement effectively kills further development of its "Crowsnest" gold deposit.

"We are surprised and disappointed by the Government's action given our outstanding exploration results at Crowsnest in 2009," he said in a statement. "We will seek adequate compensation."

The province faced international pressure to protect Glacier, which is a U.N.-designated World Heritage Site. Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park, which sits along the valley's eastern border in Alberta, were jointly designated as a cross-boundary World Heritage Site in 1995.

British Columbia froze a proposal for an open-pit coal mine in the valley this summer after the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization asked the United States and Canada to intervene (Greenwire, July 2, 2009).

Point could implement a new land-use plan for the area via an "order in council" -- the Canadian equivalent of an executive decree -- or he could submit one to the legislative assembly for a vote. All but 30,000 acres of British Columbia's portion of the valley are publicly held.

Environmental groups cheered Point's announcement but said they were still waiting to see the details of the plan. The groups are also hoping the province will eventually turn its portion of the Flathead into a national park to join Waterton Lakes and Glacier as part of the World Heritage Site.

"There's still work to be done here, but I'm not going to lie to you, I'm a pretty happy guy right now," said Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association. "You had a land-use plan in place that put mining above all other values. This announcement signals a shift away from that."

Correction: Changes "ordering council" to "order in council."