he North Fork of the Flathead river
The river churns south from the Canadian province of British Columbia and splashes clear, green life into Montana, where the river forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park. Mountain goats and grizzly bears sip from these waters. So do wolverines and lynx, elk and bighorns, martens and wolves.
Nobody lives in the Canadian North Fork, and visitors are uncommon even in hunting season. The drainage is not unknown. It’s wild, but it’s not wilderness. Old logging roads twine all over the place, but they’ve seen little traffic since most logging ended in the 1970s and a flood in 1995 took out many of them. Brush and trees sprout in the ruts, reclaiming ground at their own pace.
Yet isolated though it is by geography, bad roads and weather, the North Fork has been at the center of some of the continent’s thorniest struggles over development.
For a century, people have tried to pull fossil fuels from the ground beneath the valley—on both sides of the border—without much success. A well drilled in the early 20th century in what is now Glacier National Park didn’t produce. During a spike in energy prices in the 1970s and 1980s, oil companies punched deep holes on the Canadian side of the border, seeking oil and gas. In Montana, oil and natural-gas developers purchased rights to drill along parts of the river. In the end, however, the prospective cost of building a permanent mining infrastructure up the wild, 80-mile valley kept the drilling rigs at bay.
Several proposals to develop the valley resurfaced in recent years, but this time the development plans were on a much larger scale. In 2005, Canadian companies
announced plans for massive coal-mining operations—the kind that grind up whole mountains—near the headwaters at the northern end of the valley, and they spent millions of dollars exploring the deposits there.
The possibility of giant mining projects in such a wild area caused dark ripples on both sides of the border.
“You can spend a week or two up there in the summer and never see anybody,” says Bruce McLellan, a grizzly bear researcher for British Columbia’s Ministry of Natural Resource Operations who has been working in the Canadian North Fork since 1978. “It’s even wilder now than it was when I first started working in there.”
When wildness is shrinking almost everywhere, it blooms in the North Fork. Using the grizzly bear as a yardstick, this ecosystem is a paragon of health: While Glacier National Park is famous for its bears, the Canadian North Fork and nearby drainages have almost twice the density of grizzlies—about one bear every seven square miles, according to McLellan. Nowhere else in inland Canada boasts so many grizzlies.
Because it’s so productive, so rich in wildlife, the Canadian stretch of the North Fork is a source of predators for nearby areas, says McLellan. In fact, Glacier’s first resident wolf pack since the 1930s, the Magic Pack, drifted in from the Canadian North Fork in the 1980s.
And then there is the water.
The North Fork is a major tributary of Flathead Lake, likely the most pristine big lake in the West, says Jack Stanford, director of the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station since 1980.
Stanford offers a succinct description of mountaintop removal mining: “It’s turning a mountain upside down and sorting through it,” he says from his office on the shore of Flathead Lake. And that’s what companies were proposing on the North Fork.
Modern mines are big enterprises. They need support, infrastructure, supplies. A new town would likely spring up in this unpeopled valley. And even in the best-case projections of various environmental studies, the mines would disrupt wildlife migrations, pollute the water and end the valley’s isolation. Especially vulnerable are the bull trout—a muscled-up torpedo of a fish listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act—and the westslope cutthroat trout, which has been designated a species of concern. These fish rely exclusively on pristine rivers like the North Fork, with its emerald pools—so cold, so clean, so increasingly rare.
Stanford’s laboratory helped study the water above and below comparable mines in British Columbia’s Elk River drainage, just west of the North Fork. The results of downriver effects scientists measured were stark: Mining and associated activities raised nitrogen levels in the water 1,000-fold, sulfate levels 100-fold and selenium 10-fold. The changes disrupted the river’s ecological processes and caused some invertebrate aquatic creatures to disappear. (High levels of nitrogen—a critical nutrient for plants—can fuel algal blooms that soak up a river’s oxygen, suffocating fish.)
And that was without factoring in the potential for catastrophes like floods, avalanches or blowouts of containment dams.
Max Baucus, the Democratic senior U.S. senator from Montana, has been a longtime advocate for the North Fork. He first took on the issue of its protection in the early 1970s. “It’s one of the most unique places on Earth,” Baucus says, adding that protecting it always made sense to him. “Some things are just intuitive,” he says. “It’s not rocket science.”
When Canadian companies again proposed mines in the headwaters in 2005, Baucus knew Montanans would expect him to act.
Though the grizzlies, wolves and elk know nothing of the border, and the river, too, travels without a passport, for humans, that national border can be a tall hurdle.
Protecting the North Fork would mean asking British Columbia officials to walk away from royalties and tax revenues from potentially billions of dollars worth of mineral extraction. That was a delicate issue, says Baucus, and it meant the United States would need to demonstrate a commitment as well.
Meanwhile, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer reached out to then-British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell. Building on past collaborations on cross-border issues, the two began working at the state and provincial level to find a solution to the North Fork dilemma.
Negotiations moved in fits and starts, Schweitzer says, but the state, the province and the two federal governments eventually worked out a deal.
Early in 2010, Schweitzer and Campbell announced some big news. From that day on, they said, moving mountains to extract coal, gold, gas and oil—and the traffic, disruption and pollution that accompany these projects—would no longer be a possibility in the Canadian North Fork.
The mining companies had agreed to abandon their Canadian claims if they could be compensated for what they had spent on exploration. That amounted to just under $10 million.
It seemed like quite a bargain. In exchange for $10 million, the two countries could protect nearly 400,000 acres. That’s less than $25 an acre, not counting British Columbia’s decision to walk away from potentially millions in taxes and royalties on the minerals.
Still, U.S. officials had a hard time coming up with their share of the money. Baucus says that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took great interest in the project. But there was a concern in Washington about the U.S. government’s setting a precedent by compensating a foreign company for its expenses in a foreign country.
That’s when The Nature Conservancy and its unaffiliated partner, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, stepped up to the plate and offered up a solution. In exchange for protections on the North Fork, the two nonprofit organizations would form the North Fork Now! campaign to raise the $10 million needed to protect the 400,000 acres.
“The deal was all done,” Schweitzer says. “It was just a matter of where the money was going to come from. I give the greatest kudos to The Nature Conservancy and Nature Conservancy of Canada. Had it not been for them stepping in, I think the deal would have been doomed.”
Richard Jeo, a biologist who directs the Conservancy’s Canada country program (not to be confused with the unaffiliated partner organization, Nature Conservancy of Canada), says the Conservancy was a natural player because it has worked for more than a decade on a variety of projects along the Crown of the Continent, the vast swath of mostly wild lands along the Continental Divide. The North Fork is a crucial component of the Crown. “It became clear that the deal needed money, so we offered to help,” says Jeo.
And the clock was ticking: Campbell was leaving office in the next year, adding uncertainty to the future of the deal.
“There was a risk of losing this opportunity,” says Kat Imhoff, the Conservancy’s state director in Montana, when the two conservancies agreed to provide the money. The project was just too good a deal to pass up, she says.
To strengthen the agreement, Baucus and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, also a Democrat from Montana, have sponsored legislation that would permanently withdraw the U.S. stretch of the North Fork from oil and gas development.
“The leases were given back with the understanding that nobody would turn around and lease them again in the future,” Tester says.
With this deal in place, the North Fork will remain an intact part of the vast Crown of the Continent ecosystem. Flanked by national parks on both sides of the border, the valley will continue to be little known and hard to reach.
“What this package does is remove the big threats, the killer threats,” says biologist Jeo.
And the North Fork valley can keep doing what it does, converting old roads into forest, harboring wild creatures like grizzlies and wolverines, feeding elk and deer and fish, pouring cold, clean water downstream.
“It’s doing fine right now,” say McLellan, the grizzly researcher. “If it stays like it is for another hundred years, I’ll be happy.”