On Oct. 3, 2002, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien declared his ambition to expand the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The new parklands would extend west from the current Waterton boundary, just north of the U.S. border. Canadians call this area “the Flathead.” It’s a 1,000 sq. km valley that’s mostly empty and very unlike Montana’s increasingly populated Flathead County.
In the growing communities of Flathead County, there’s growing support for park expansion. The Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau, and the chambers of commerce in Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispell all support park expansion. Mayors in Whitefish, Kalispell, Missoula and Great Falls are also pro-expansion.
This united front of official endorsement is a rarity in the divisive world of environmental politics. It also stands in contrast to the lack of official support found in Canadian communities near the proposed expansion area.
In the Elk Valley just north of the border, Fernie, B.C. has distinguished itself as the only nearby community that has not officially opposed the park’s expansion. This seemingly benign position has upset surrounding communities like Sparwood and Elkford, which have strong ties to the Elk Valley Coal Corporation (formerly known as Fording Coal).
Park expansion is a touchy subject in coal mining communities north of the border. And like so many environmental debates, this dispute includes feuding rivals who spare no adjectives when asked to describe the opposition.
One sore point is the dispute over whether or not there are coal reserves in the area that could one day become part of the Waterton-Glacier Peace Park. Those pushing for park expansion—including Parks Canada (the equivalent of the National Park Service in the U.S.)—say thorough surveys show no coal reserves. The Elk Valley Coal Corporation disagrees, insisting in the face of contradictory reports that the new park boundary would close the door on future coal exploration.
“We don’t feel there are any economic benefits to [expanding the park],” says Cindy Brunel, spokesperson for the Elk Valley Coal Corporation. “It would hurt us. It would hurt everybody.”
The Coal Corporation currently operates five mines and employs more than 2,600 people in the Elk Valley. About 15,000 people live in the area, with Fernie the largest city. With a population of about 5,000, Fernie is roughly the size of Whitefish. It’s also a former railroad town that’s now focused on preserving and promoting the outdoor amenities nearby.
These amenities—great skiing, easy access to public lands—have helped stimulate the economy in ways similar to those outlined in a recent University of Montana economic study of Flathead County.
The report, titled “Gateway to Glacier: The Emerging Economy of Flathead County,” was commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association. The study concludes that the economy in Flathead County is anchored by the presence of the park and nearby public lands. The report suggests that during the 1990s, Glacier helped stimulate a net increase of 15,700 jobs, while the unemployment rate fell to a 30-year low.
In the last decade, Flathead County has seen a 44-percent increase in its total number of employing businesses. These businesses are apparently paying more, as the per capita income in the county has grown “13 percent in real, inflation-adjusted dollars,” according to the report.
One of the report’s researchers, University of Montana economist Larry Swanson, told those gathered at a May 20 Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon that the Montana Flathead’s growing economy comes courtesy of the area’s “superb quality of life.” The presence of stunning views, abundant wildlife and rivers flowing from wilderness “pays off in tangible economic benefits.”
In order to make a tangible connection between economic growth in the Flathead and the amenities of Glacier Park, the study interviewed local business leaders, politicians and park visitors. In these interviews, the study found that economic opportunities are being created in the Flathead by people who move to the area because they love the outdoors. They take advantage of all types of public lands, including Glacier Park.
Same goes for those who continue to relocate to Fernie. The Fernie City Council had this growing constituency in mind on April 14, when it unanimously voted to request that Parks Canada undertake a socio-economic feasibility study of park expansion. If the Waterton boundaries are bulged to include the Canadian Flathead, Fernie residents will be close enough to take day hikes into the expanded park.
Fernie City Councilor David Thomas says the recent University of Montana study of Flathead County’s economy “happened to confirm what some of us have been saying for a long time.” Namely, that if towns located near public lands and national parks can continue to attract entrepreneurs and professionals in search of beautiful places to live, then those beautiful places can continue to grow their economies in new and vibrant ways.
“Careers are so mobile these days,” adds Thomas. “People can work from anywhere.”
Charlie Zinkan, Parks Canada’s executive director for mountain parks, won’t predict when a final decision might be made about expanding Waterton. He says that his agency and the provincial government of British Columbia are working toward an undisclosed deadline, but that right now, “It’s still a moving target.”