This state of conservation report is presented by the World Heritage Centre and IUCN following the receipt of extensive correspondence relating to the potential impact of proposed mining development in the Elk and Flathead Valleys of southeast British Columbia, Canada. This property has also received considerable attention relating to the threat of climate change to its integrity and values. This is the first report to be presented to the World Heritage Committee since the property was inscribed in 1995.
On 9 April 2009, the State Party of the United States of America responded to the World Heritage Centre. No response has been received from the State Party of Canada at the time of finalising this report.
It should be noted that concerns surrounding the potential impact of mining were already identified in the Periodic Report submitted by the State Party in 2004. On 1 May 2008, the State Party of Canada clarified that the government of British Columbia would not allow coalbed methane gas exploration by BP in Flathead Valley. Regarding the coal mining by Cline Corporation, the State Party informed the World Heritage Centre that the Comprehensive Study required under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act had yet to be completed and that a draft scoping study would be released for public consultation later in 2008.
The letter of the State Party of the United States of America notes, inter alia, that risks to the Outstanding Universal Value and integrity of the property from the potential for mining, gas or oil production in the Canadian portion of the Flathead Valley would ‘continue to exist indefinitely unless these lands are protected from resource development.’ The State Party of the United State of America noted earlier findings of scientists and land managers that extraction operations in the upper Flathead Basin ‘could not be fully mitigated and would result in some level of impairment or degradation’ of the property. The impacts expected included ‘loss of fisheries, water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat and species connectivity.’
The State Party of the United State of America also draws attention to the analysis of the International Joint Commission (IJC) which examined a previous mining proposal in the Flathead River Basin in 1988. The IJC was ‘particularly cognizant of the potential risk of unusual events such as the failure of waste dumps and settling ponds’ and considered that these represented ‘an unacceptable risk’ to the river basin.
The State Party of the United State of America reports that a baseline study in the Flathead Basin and comparative study will be completed in 2012 between the Flathead River and the Elk River, and considers that this study should be concluded ‘before any development activities move to the approval or permitting stage. The Outstanding Universal Value and the ecological integrity of Waterton-glacier International Peace Park as recognized by the World Heritage Committee must be assured before any development is authorized.’’
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN also note similar concerns have been received by non-governmental organisations in the United States of America and in Canada, including calls for the property to be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. On 26 June 2008, a coalition of NGOs petitioned the World Heritage Committee to include the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The petitioners raised concern over the proposed coal open-pit mining and the coalbed methane extraction. The petition described potential impacts from open-pit mining to include reduced air quality, increased noise pollution affecting behaviour of migratory wildlife, reduced water quality from possible leaching and spillage of mine tailings and from settling ponds. Reduced water quality was asserted to pose a particular risk to threatened and endangered fish.
On 26 January 2009 the Flathead Basin Commission submitted a petition to the World Heritage Centre to add Waterton-Glacier International Glacier International Peace Park to the List of World Heritage in Danger. This petition was further supported by the Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. The petition notes the potential serious adverse impacts to the property and adjacent ecosystem from industrial energy development and mining proposals in the headwaters of the Flathead River. The petition also notes that exploration programmes for gold, copper and phosphate were conduced in 2008 and additional work is planned for 2009.
b) Climate Change
Concerns over the impact of climate change on the property were identified in Section II of the last cycle of Periodic Reporting on the property. This stated that the ‘park glaciers have shrunk dramatically over the past century; and that the park’s tree line is creeping higher in elevation; that the alpine tundra zone is shrinking, and that subalpine meadows are filling in with tree species.’ The States Parties have an established climate monitoring programme that stated in the Periodic Report to ‘help clarify the impacts of climate change on the park and thus help prompt action by States Parties to slow or reverse this global problem.’
In 2006, the International Environmental Law Project of Lewis and Clark Law School, Oregon, led a group of NGOs to submit a petition to the World Heritage Committee for inclusion of the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger as a result of Climate Change. On 29 January 2009, the NGOs Earthjustice and the Australian Climate Justice Program submitted a petition, entitled “The Role of Black Carbon in Endangering World Heritage Sites Threatened by Glacial Melt and Sea Level Rise” to the World Heritage Committee. The petition ‘calls on the World Heritage Committee to take action to protect the Outstanding Universal Values of World Heritage Sites most vulnerable to global warming.’ Properties protecting glaciers were highlighted in particular, including Waterton Glacier International Peace Park. The World Heritage Centre transmitted a copy of the 2009 Earth Justice and Australian Climate Justice Program Black Carbon petition to the States Parties whose properties were mentioned within it for comment.
The 2006 ‘Petition to the World Heritage Committee requesting inclusion of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the List of World Heritage in Danger as a result of climate change and for protective measures and actions’ noted evidence that:
“Average summer temperatures have increased 1.66˚C between 1910 and 1980, and precipitation levels have decreased by as much as twenty percent in the area around Waterton-Glacier. Second the loss of more than eighty percent of the park’s glaciers is the result of climate change. Since 1850, the area covered by glaciers in the park has decreased by seventy-three percent and continues to decrease.” (Executive Summary, 2006)
The 2006 response from the State Party of the United States of America to this petition was that Waterton-Glacier did not warrant addition to the List of World Heritage in Danger, although they acknowledged that the most appropriate role for the World Heritage Committee on the issue of climate change was ‘to share and collect information on how to measure and predict impact of climate change and provide examples of management action that could be taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change so to ensure the ongoing conservation of the Outstanding Universal Values of the World Heritage Sites.’
The 2009 Black Carbon Petition notes that only 27 glaciers, out of the 150 recorded in 1850, remain and these continue to retreat. However, the petition also notes that there has been limited research on the role of deposition of black carbon (in essence soot originating from human energy use) on glaciers and associated precipitation and melt-water. Research in the western United States of America has indicated that soot on snow increases air temperature above the snow by up to 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
IUCN notes that monitoring of climate, glaciers and tree-line height show that the ecosystems of the property are responding to climatic change. Adaptive management measures should be taken by the States Parties to optimise the ability of the ecosystem and resident wildlife to adapt to changing condition. Resilience should be maintained by ensuring ecosystem connectivity and genetic diversity and reducing threats and pressures that could increase vulnerability to these rapid changes. Pressures that can reduce the ability for ecosystems to adapt include pollution and habitat fragmentation.
c) Other threats
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note that several other threats to the property are also discussed in the 2009 Flathead Basin Petition citing danger from mining. This petition, citing the 2000 report from the Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada’s National Parks and the 1980 study by the US National Park Service, identify the following threats: ‘cumulative impacts from proposed highway expansion, conversion of working ranch and forest lands to recreation, commercial and residential developments, clearcut logging, a growing number of low-level sightseeing air tours, invasion of non-native species, and potential extraction of coal, oil and gas resources.’ The petition further discusses the impact of these threats to include ‘fragmented, degraded, and destroyed habitat’ and ‘severe limitation on the movement of wide-ranging species like bears, wolves, deer, and elk,’ and effects of invasive species and degraded water quality on aquatic ecosystems.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that the any resource extraction or development in the Canadian headwaters area of the Flathead River poses a potential threat to the property which requires assessment before any license is granted. Though the mining and exploration activities are planned for areas outside the boundaries of the World Heritage property it will be important that the associated infrastructure are planned and developed in a way that ensure no risk to the values of the property, including water quality. The consideration of whether the environmental risk from such proposals could be accepted at all should be addressed within the assessment process. In view of the transboundary nature of the World Heritage property it is also considered essential that there is thorough consultation between both States Parties regarding these assessments. The States Parties are therefore encouraged to increase consultation and collaboration to ensure that the property is protected from development threats. The States Parties are also encouraged to continue and extend their collaboration to implement management that will increase the resilience of the property and conserve its ecosystems and the wildlife populations in the face of climate change