UN to hear petition that claims Rocky Mountain park in danger

Mark Hume
Vancouver — From Tuesday's Globe and Mail, Tuesday, May. 26, 2009 08:52AM EDT
A stunningly beautiful park that spans the Canada-U.S. border in southwestern Alberta may soon be added to an infamous United Nations list of the world's most threatened special areas.

In a session in Seville, Spain, next month, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will consider a petition by 11 conservation groups asking that Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park be designated a World Heritage Site in Danger.

“If that happens, it would be a really big black eye for both Canada and the United States,” Ryland Nelson, a spokesman for one of the petitioning groups, Wildsight, said yesterday.

“We hope it doesn't come to that. Ideally, before that designation takes place, we'd like to see these two countries come together and agree on the actions that are needed to protect this area,” he said.

Click here for coalition letter to the WHC (PDF)

But time is running short, with UNESCO's World Heritage Committee set to hear the item at a June 27 session.

The World Heritage in Danger list names 30 sites – none in North America – that range from the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan (where the Taliban blew up two ancient Buddhist statues in 2001) to the historic town of Zabid in Yemen (where buildings have crumbled through a lack of conservation efforts).

Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is comprised of two national parks that are linked across the Alberta-Montana border where the raw backbone of the Rocky Mountains crosses into the United States.

Those parks are protected and carefully managed. But in British Columbia's southeastern corner, the landscape adjoining the international park remains open to development.

The B.C. government has rejected proposals to “close the loop” by adding the area to the international park.

Among the threats to the park are a proposed coal mine that would remove 18 million tonnes of overburden rock and coal a year, and a methane gas field that would cover 500 square kilometres.

Mr. Nelson said if those developments go ahead in B.C., the Flathead River could carry pollutants south into Glacier National Park.

The Flathead River makes up the western boundary of the park in Montana.

Mr. Nelson said the Flathead River valley provides critical habitat for endangered species that migrate to and from Waterton-Glacier, and it has the highest concentration of Grizzly Bears in North America.

“We're asking the World Heritage Committee to assess potentially grave impacts on water and wildlife in Waterton-Glacier, given that B.C.'s land-use plan for the Flathead River valley prioritizes mining and energy development,” Mr. Nelson said.

In a letter earlier this month to Francesco Bandarin, director of the UN World Heritage Centre, the conservation groups warned that resource activity in the Flathead River valley posed a grave threat.

Mr. Nelson said that, in an unusual move, UNESCO not only agreed to hear the petition in the Seville session, but invited the petitioners to send delegates to the convention to testify.

“We don't really know what is going to happen,” he said. “But they get thousands of petitions and most of them are ignored, so we know this matter is being taken seriously.”

Over the past several years, influential Montana senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and Governor Brian Schweitzer, have repeatedly urged B.C. to halt resource development in the Flathead region.

But B.C. has steadfastly rejected those concerns, saying any development will be subject to provincial environmental assessment regulations.

The issue has been growing in importance, however.

Last year, during the U.S. Democratic presidential primaries, Barack Obama issued a statement through his Montana press office that described the Flathead River and Glacier National Park as “treasures that should be conserved for future generations.”

Mr. Nelson said he expects the U.S. delegate at the conference will carry forward those concerns and support the petition.

Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 because of its outstanding scenery and rich wildlife values.