More than 5,000 miles from his office in Whitefish, Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) delivers good news: The United Nations will send a mission to Canada to assess the threats mining projects pose to the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
"The case that we made was pretty straightforward," says Hammerquist over the phone from Spain. "It came back to the fact that there are outstanding universal values of the park, and the British Columbia land-use plan, which allows corporations to come in and propose coal mines in the headwaters of pristine rivers, is a threat to those values."
On June 29, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee wrapped up its 33rd session in Seville, a nine-day meeting during which Hammerquist and representatives from Canadian environmental organizations argued that the Peace Park, a World Heritage Site, should be designated a World Heritage Site in Danger.
It's the latest attempt to protect the area from energy development in a transboundary dispute that's lasted 30 years.
The committee, composed of representatives from 21 countries, voted unanimously to send the mission, one of seven to be conducted around the world.
"The integrity of the property is inextricably linked with the quality of stewardship of the adjacent areas within the international Crown of the Continent ecosystem," wrote the committee in its decision.
Specifically, UNESCO voiced concern over "the potential threat to the Outstanding Universal Value and integrity of the property from potential mining and energy development within the Flathead Valley and, in particular, to the continued quantity and quality of water supplies and ecosystem connectivity between the property and important habitats outside its boundaries."
The mission will be conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a scientific conservation organization that partners with the United Nations. The group expects to travel to the park sometime this year.
"They want to take a really broad look at the whole ecosystem," Hammerquist says, "because there is sort of a global recognition that the Crown of the Continent is one of these few [intact] ecosystems left on the planet. And that's the sad reality of our situation."
To help UNESCO inform its decision, the committee asked Canadian and U.S. officials to prepare a report by February 1, 2010, examining all Flathead River Valley energy and mining proposals and their cumulative environmental impacts.
That report will surely evaluate Cline Mining Corporation's proposed Lodgepole Coal Mine project in the Crowsnest Pass area in southeastern British Columbia, a project that, according to environmental groups, would remove 40 million tons of coal and dump more than 325 million tons of waste rock into Foisey Creek, a headwaters stream of the Flathead River. Cline Mining measured the Lodgepole project's total coal resources at 154 million tons. Two weeks ago, during Cline Mining's annual meeting, American and Canadian environmental groups, including NPCA, once again called on the company to abandon the project.
But the company, which didn't respond to the Independent's requests for comment, hasn't budged. Hammerquist admits that UNESCO's World Heritage Site in Danger designation wouldn't necessarily force the company's hand, but argues the global attention still bodes well for the park.
"I think what you're seeing is awareness of this issue has been taken to another level," he says. "At one time it was a local issue. Then, as a candidate for president, Sen. Obama weighed in on the issue, and it became somewhat of a national issue. Now it's a global issue. So I think we'll see it continue to grow as people recognize the impacts a coal mine would have in the headwaters of the park."
Another promising outcome of the meeting, Hammerquist adds, is strong leadership from the Canadian federal government and Parks Canada. Initiative from north of the border will help keep pressure on Cline Mining.
"Whereas the province of B.C. may own the resources," he says, "the Canadian government, they have international obligations, and it's their job to make sure those are upheld."
The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site in 1995, would be the first endangered site in North America, and only the third that spans an international border. The World Heritage Committee last week added three more to the endangered list, including protected areas in Belize, Colombia and Georgia. A cultural area in Azerbaijan was removed from the list. The current total of World Heritage Sites in Danger now stands at 32.