House of Cards

This is the third and final essay of my thesis.  I explored the history of attempts at developing the resources that lie beneath and within the North Fork Flathead Valley.  I really enjoyed writing this piece.


House of Cards

On the northeastern shore of Kintla Lake, in a remote corner of Glacier National Park, lies a rusty iron relic.  It sits half-submerged in the crystal mountain water, slowly flaking away with each rain storm and spring melt.  A boiler once owned by the Butte Oil Company, it is a mute, cold, hard reminder of a time when landscapes were defined by the resources they held and the profit those resources could generate.

Kintla Lake drains into the North Fork of the Flathead River, which begins forty miles farther north in southeastern British Columbia.  Its outlet, a two-mile-long creek bearing the same name as the lake, sprints west, tumbling over ancient rocks and past towering trees to its confluence with the North Fork.  From there, its waters glide forty miles to the confluence of the North Fork and the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.  Together the two rivers wind another ten miles, before meeting the South Fork of the Flathead, and finally twelve miles later, they pool in massive Flathead Lake.  All three rivers are part of the National Wild and Scenic River System.  The South Fork drains the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, the Middle Fork drains most of the southern mountains in Glacier National Park and forms its southern border, while the North Fork drains the Park’s western peaks and forms its western border.  These rivers are the recreational, spiritual, ecological, and symbolic blood lines of one of the largest, most pristine and iconic landscapes in the United States.

That these rivers flow unpolluted and free a decade into the 21st century is remarkable in a West that commits resources to industry as often as it can.  The North Fork of the Flathead, and the wide North Fork Valley through which it flows, have been particularly seductive for the men who seek profit and progress.  Yet for over a hundred years, this valley has escaped the bulldozer’s grind, the excavator’s crush, the ravages that are the fraternal twin to industrial development.  The North Fork’s still pristine condition owes less to the environmental laws enacted in the U.S. in the 1970s than it does to the failed gambles of those men who wished to exploit it for their own benefit.  For over a century, coal, oil, and cheap hydropower have lured businessmen and corporations into the North Fork.  Yet success has proven elusive in this remote corner of America.  Until now.  The Canadian North Fork, 35 miles of pristine, unpopulated country, is thick with coal, and global mining conglomerates have filed plans to develop this country, to turn the wild into progress and the land into money.

Coal doesn’t mine itself of course.  Roads, or even better, railroads are needed to sprint the coal dug from the ground to the factories and the power plants that seem to never have enough.  In the spring of 1890, the North Fork seemed ripe for such incursion.  Surveyors for James J. Hill’s Great Northern Rail Road had finally completed their arduous mission.  Hill wanted to extend the Great Northern through Montana and on to Washington, and the surveyors had labored hard to plot a route over the Continental Divide.  Marias Pass, the lowest pass in the Northern Rockies, and a closely guarded secret of the Blackfeet, had been discovered at long last, and when Hill’s men laid the lines west from Havre, blasting flat a route through the mountains, the Flathead was too.  In the decade preceding the Great Northern’s completion, small, rugged pioneer towns had sprouted in the sprawling valley despite difficult and costly travel to the region.  The railroad ensured their growth and prosperity.

For the decades preceding the Great Northern, settlers took a different route to the Flathead Valley. A spur line off the Northern Pacific Railroad, the southern counterpart to Hill’s as yet unbuilt, transcontinental Highline Route, steamed north from Missoula to Ravalli, where settlers began a week-long stage coach journey across the Flathead Indian Reservation to the southern end of Flathead Lake.  Settlers then boarded a steamship to travel up the thirty-mile-long lake, where they loaded their gear onto another stage coach and plodded the final few miles to one of the young frontier towns.  The ships ran as late into the cold Montana winters as the lake would allow, once even freezing in place when a bitter January storm descended on the valley.  Passengers simply waited until the ice was thick enough to support their weight, then walked a couple miles to warmth and civilization.  Hill’s new rail line equaled access.   And access equaled money.

By the end of 1891, Hill finished his transcontinental railroad, and on January 1, 1892 a silver-spike ceremony was held in Kalispell, Montana, to mark its official completion.  Stories about the area’s virgin forests teeming with game, its immense mineral wealth, and its productive agricultural lands sped east and west with the trains.  Homesteaders and prospectors drifted in from all directions.  Hard rock mineral exploration exploded.  East and north of Kalispell, prospectors had been picking across the land for decades, but by the early 1890s several miners worked in what would, in 20 short years, become Glacier National Park.  Straight north of Kalispell, 50 miles up the North Fork of the Flathead River, lay known coal deposits and oil seeps.  Grizzly bears killed in the area were rumored to have hides that smelled of kerosene.  Speculation was bursting in every corner of the valley.

For years, the small towns that dotted the valley had battled to be the regional hub, and when Hill elected to grace Kalispell with his rail line, Kalispell won.  The communities of Ashley and Demersville were abandoned, residents fleeing to more prosperous hamlets.  But not all towns rolled over as quickly.  Ten miles north of Kalispell, young Columbia Falls redoubled its effort to attract settlers and commerce.  Led by The Northern International Improvement Company, the town proclaimed it held the key to unlocking the region’s timber and coal resources.  The company owned the rights to mine the coal fields and was strategically located on the shores of the main stem of the Flathead River.

The Northern International Improvement Company hoped that Hill would build a rail line north along the North Fork of the Flathead to access the southern end of the coal fields that were thought to straddle the international border.  The line would open up the land to exploitation, oil slicks discovered near Kintla Lake just a few miles south of the border would be accessible, and the giant forests of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and towering larch trees could be harvested and processed at local lumber mills.   But Hill, a capitalist of the oldest American tradition, refused to build the line unless he gained full control of the coal fields and the bounty they held.  The businessmen, capitalists too, refused to sell Hill the rights to the coal, and the line was never built.  This fateful decision, greed vs. greed, forever affected the North Fork of the Flathead River.  Without a rail line to speed supplies and men, exploitation of the North Fork Valley required perseverance, endurance, and money.  But even more, it required the optimistic faith that only gamblers possess.

Such faith ran thick in the men of the Northern International Improvement Company, and following Hill’s refusal, the men devised a plan to develop the coal.  Led by James A. Talbott, the Company determined that the most promising alternative to a rail line would be to construct a rugged steamship and power it up the North Fork of the Flathead River on the spring flood.  Arriving at the fields, the enterprise would mine the coal and return down river the following spring, loaded with black wealth.

Over the winter of 1891, Talbott’s boat builder crafted the seventy-five-foot ship, which Talbott christened the Oakes, after the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, James J. Hill’s chief rival.  The boat was equipped with two massive steam engines, one salvaged from the defunct steamship Crescent, which for years had navigated Flathead Lake but was made obsolete by the Great Northern.  The Oakes was a tough, shallow bottomed stern-wheeler.  Talbott, anticipating a difficult journey, ordered that a massive winch be attached to the bow so that ropes could be tied off to giant trees that lined the river and the boat could be winched through particularly difficult sections.

As winter turned to spring, Talbott’s $5,000 gamble was made ready for its maiden voyage.  The Company hired Captain A.J. Lanneau to pilot the Oakes upriver and loaded the boat with supplies.  A crew was assembled and local newspapers, led by The Columbian, ran articles glorifying the mission and predicting success.  By late spring, the boat, the Captain, the crew, and the Company were ready.  In May of 1892, the Oakes started up the main stem of the Flathead River.

The Flathead is very much a glacial river, which is to say its mood shifts wildly from season to season.  In late summer, its deep pools appear an otherworldly aquamarine color, an effect produced by glacial silt suspended in the water below.  During the spring flood, by contrast, the river turns into a chalky-grey terror, ripping trees from its banks and roaring through the valley.  Running at roughly 27,000 cubic feet per second in May and June, the Flathead is powerful and dangerous.

As the Oakes slipped into the flood, the men aboard must have wondered about the wisdom of their enterprise.  The swollen river made for extremely arduous passage and the boat crawled upstream.  In an effort to stretch his $5,000 as far as possible, Talbott had only one boiler installed on the ship.  The giant steam engines Talbott had purchased for the Oakes required massive amounts of steam, and the single boiler proved too small to reliably power the ship.

Forced to compensate for the anemic boiler, crew members repeatedly labored through the current and tied the rope that snaked from the winch to one of the behemoth trees crowding the river.  The boat hovered in the current while the boiler raged, building enough steam to power the engines.  Only then did the stern paddle grind through the grey river and the boat inch upstream towards the coal fields.

From Columbia Falls, which borders the main stem of the Flathead, the Oakes battled some fourteen miles east to the confluence of the Middle and North Forks and present-day Blankenship Bridge.  From there, the ship headed straight north, towards the Canadian border, finally steaming up the actual North Fork itself.   For another week, the ship crawled north, gaining only ten miles and making it to Canyon Creek, near Fool’s Hen Rapids.  The river had only grown more furious as May’s hot sun melted the snowpack.  The boiler was working almost constantly, and the men were exhausted.  The Oakes had averaged less than two miles a day.

On a gorgeous spring morning in the last days of May, only two weeks into the trip and only 24 river miles from Columbia Falls, the Oakes’ crew orchestrated their now familiar routine:  A row boat, small and insignificant against the 75-foot ship, ferried across the raging current towing the heavy, wet hemp rope affixed to the Oakes’ winch.  After scrambling out of the boat and through the thick vegetation that lined the bank, the crewmembers searched for a tree thick enough to hold the massive boat steady in the flood.  Frustrated by the brutally slow progress, the men hastily swung the rope around a giant Douglas fir that stood guard a few steps from the bank.

Meanwhile, aboard the Oakes, the boiler man madly shoveled coal into the boiler as the ship shuddered in the center of the river.  The boiler shook and hissed, straining to build enough pressure to run the giant steam engines that kept the boat upright and upstream against the current.

The full weight of the ship pulled at the rope and it dug into the three-hundred-year-old tree.  A deep groan escaped from the Douglas fir, and the Oakes angled into the raging water, jerking like an angry dog.  Suddenly the boat shifted hard, sliding forward in the current.

On deck, a nightmare unfolded.  The Oakes’ bow, riding too low in the current, plunged below the swell.  Frigid water covered the deck.  Crewmen slid and crashed into the pilot house on the slippery wooden boards.  The Oakes sank deeper into the river as water pooled in her hold.  The crew set about frenzied bailing.  Wooden and canvas buckets were passed from hand to hand, emptied and passed back in a desperate attempt to put the river water back where it belonged.  But the added weight was too much.  The giant tree shuddered under the additional strain and began to pull from the ground.  The bow dipped again under the grey-green waters and the boat sank farther into the river.

Entirely overwhelmed, the tree heaved a final groan – its massive root system torn from the ground, sending a shower of loosened soil and river rocks skyward.   The Oakes swung sideways in the current and the men again lost their footing and slid across the slick deck.  Suddenly, sickeningly, the rails slipped under the current and the Oakes foundered.   The crew jumped off the boat and swam toward the bank, salvaging whatever supplies they could.  Miraculously, all members made it to shore safely, if terrified, then watched helplessly as the raging river tore their ship apart.

While townspeople deduced the fate of the Oakes from the debris that floated past Columbia Falls’ Main Street, it took several days for the crew to cross the swollen river and pick its way through the thick forest back to Columbia Falls.  Talbott’s gamble had failed, and the coal fields were left undeveloped.

For the decade following the Oakes’ fateful journey, the North Fork flowed undisturbed.  Homesteaders carved settlements into the wilderness and the valley’s towns began to lose their Wild West feel.  Montana continued to grow as well, and the cities of Butte and Anaconda became shining examples of both American capitalism and American greed.  Business was booming across the country and especially in the frontier west.  By the turn of the century, the North Fork once again inspired dreams of wealth – fresh players, new gambles.

On December 28, 1900, a group of prominent Butte businessmen formed the Butte Oil Company and filed a claim on thirty-three quarter sections of remote land at the head of Kintla Lake.  An oil seep had been discovered at the head of the lake decades before and the Butte Oil Company wanted to sink a well and develop the deposit they felt sure was there.  Not all geologists, however, were so certain.  In the summer of 1901, while the Butte Oil Company was busy building a rough road from Belton Station to the lake, a government geologist, Bailey Willis, surveyed the area.  His report pulled no punches.

The geology of the region was complicated, and among the complications was an unusual formation that promised to frustrate Butte Oil’s efforts.  A giant table of rock, known today as the Lewis Overthrust, had pushed its way up on top of younger, fresher minerals.  The thrust, Willis argued, was responsible for the oil seeps, but held no actual pools of oil, “Even in the most favorable locality,” he wrote, “it is probable that the drill must go deep and with but slender chance of success.”

For the Butte Oil Company, slender chance was chance enough, and they labored on.  For four weeks in the fall of 1901, the company hauled drilling and sawmill machinery up its new road, a trip of fifty-two miles.  They felled trees, built cabins, a mess hall, and an eighty-foot-tall oil derrick.  On November 15, as the last of the cottonwood leaves fell to the ground and the larch trees burned golden on the Boundary Mountains that hemmed Kintla Lake, the Butte Oil Company began drilling.

Progress was agonizingly slow.  By the end of the year, the drill had bored only 224 feet into the ground.  By February, they reached seven hundred feet.  In June, after the light green leaves of the cottonwood trees had weathered darker and the air was awash in their floating seeds, the drill broke down, shutting down the operation for a month, while the men waited for the replacement part to arrive from Pennsylvania.  They felled more trees and worked to build a new road farther into the drainage where they planned to drill another well.  August arrived and the dry dusty grass rattled in the warm breeze.  The drill hit 1100 feet and broke down again.  More delay, more money lost.  Fall painted the hills red and orange, the low hanging sun shimmered on the lake’s dark waters and soon the camp world was white.

The oil company had drilled for fourteen months but produced nothing.  Another outfit, the Kintla Lake Oil Company, suffered a similar fate, sinking a well a few miles south of the lake, on the shores of the North Fork, also finding no oil.  Frigid, putrid, sulfurous water cascaded from both wells as did flammable gas, which set the drillers on edge.

When 1903 was just a few weeks old, the drill made 1400 feet.  It was as far as it would go, but not because of the resistance of the rock or the stubbornness of the company owners.  Maybe a careless miner lit his pipe too close to the well, or maybe an orange spark shot from the grinding metal of the drill, but the flammable gas that seeped from Butte Oil’s well somehow caught fire.  Frenzied cries echoed off the steep mountains surrounding the camp.  The men scrambled from the cabins and mess hall, grabbing buckets and trying to douse the growing blaze.  But the flames were driven by the natural gas that had been long trapped beneath the rock.  In an instant, the eighty-foot derrick that had presided over the operation for a year and half burst into flames, shooting red hot embers high into the air.  Soon the entire camp was ablaze.   The men backed off from the inferno as flames consumed the cabins and all their belongings, the mess hall, the sawmill.  By late afternoon, the entire camp was reduced to a smoldering ruin.  Just as the steamboat crew had stood paralyzed onshore some eleven years before, the oilmen watched in disbelief as their $40,000 investment went up in smoke.

Early spring provided no favors to the Kintla Lake Oil Company down on the shores of the river either.  By March the company was broke and unable to raise additional capital.  The derrick and drill bordering the shores of the North Fork were dismantled and hauled back to town.  Geologist Bailey Willis’ predictions had proven true.  The jumbled, broken bedrock of the region held no substantial pockets of oil, only brutally hard limestone, just enough natural gas to fuel a fire, and an abundance of stinking, icy water.  The second North Fork gamble had failed.

By 1910, just seven years after the oil companies’ efforts ended abruptly, America’s budding conservation movement won a decisive victory and Glacier National Park was established.  The braided North Fork of the Flathead River formed the western boundary of the new park.  The fast-flowing Middle Fork, beside which ran the Great Northern Railroad, formed the southern border. Waterton Lakes National Park’s superintendent, Kootenai Brown, remarked that the designation of Glacier as a national park created a two-legged stool on which the preservation of the region rested.  The missing third leg was the Canadian portion of the North Fork of the Flathead River.  The omission was glaring.  Political rather than ecological boundaries had prevented the Canadian Flathead from being included in Waterton Lakes National Park when it was created, in 1895.  The park rests in Alberta, the Canadian Flathead just to the west, in British Columbia.  Vulnerable, despite the conservationists’ victory, the North Fork flowed on, shrouded in the cold mists that settle in its forested valley.

By the 1940s timber, agriculture, and recreation drove the economy of the Flathead Valley.  But there was only so much lumber and only so many cherries, and after Little Boy and Fat Man vaporized Hiroshima and Nagasaki, industrial interests again set their sights on the North Fork.  America’s dam building boom had begun, and the Bureau of Reclamation was itching to capitalize on the success of the Grand Coulee Dam it had built on the Columbia River.  The massive amount of energy produced by Grand Coulee made large scale hydroelectric development a top priority of President Roosevelt; joined by political leaders of both parties, his demand for more projects grew.

As part of the Columbia Basin Project, the Bureau and the Army Corps of Engineers had surveyed all of the Northwest, identifying sites that, in their view, were best suited for their massive dam projects.  The North Fork of the Flathead seemed perfect – conveniently rural and almost entirely surrounded by federally owned lands.  Engineers measured flow, elevation, and velocity, then plugged the numbers into complex formulas.  Draftsmen penciled thin lines on impressive sheets of white paper while politicians smiled in Helena and Washington D.C., wagering that jobs, cheap energy, and progress would trump the loss of park acreage.

The Corps wanted to stitch together the river’s narrow opening between Glacier View and Huckleberry Mountains.  Here, where the broad, sweeping Camas Plain rises to the northeast in virgin stands of ponderosa pine; where Wolf Gun Mountain, Longfellow Peak, and Anaconda Peak loom dark above the undulating green, here would be a 30-square-mile reservoir of stagnant, frigid water.  The grey, silty North Fork, stalled by the massive concrete wall, would flood 20,000 acres of the Park, all of it critical winter feeding grounds for the Park’s elk, white-tailed deer, and moose.  The reservoir would stretch twenty five miles upstream, turning half of the free flowing river into a still lake whose levels would fluctuate seasonally.  The Glacier View Dam, as it would be known, was touted as a reclamation project, an economic necessity, and a recreational boon.

But park and its resident wildlife were more valued then politicians had surmised, and the dam proposal met fierce opposition by national and local environmental organizations.  Led by Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug, Howard Zahnizer and Olaus Murie of the Wilderness Society, John Emmert, Glacier’s Superintendent, and others, the conservationists quickly mounted a campaign to defeat the dam’s construction.  Letters flooded the desk of the Acting Secretary of the Army, William H. Draper, Jr., and inundated the offices of the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors, the group that regulated the use of America’s rivers.

On May 25, 1948, Colonel L.H. Hewitt, of the Army Corps of Engineers, held a public hearing in Kalispell.  Olaus Murie travelled from The Wilderness Society’s headquarters near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to plead for Glacier’s preservation.  National Park Service Director Newton B. Drury joined Murie at the hearing.  Their testimony reflected the growing scientific evidence that the North Fork of the Flathead River and its namesake valley provided a disproportionate amount of critical lands for Glacier’s wildlife.  Drury worked the numbers like an environmental bookie:  White-tailed deer, unique in the west to Glacier, would be decimated by the flooding.  Elk, white-tailed and mule deer, moose, beaver, and birds – all would lose significant amounts of winter habitat.

By the end of the year, the Secretary of the Army had withdrawn the proposal.  But in 1950, the dam was again proposed.  John Emmert, Glacier’s Superintendent, devised a plan to forever quell the dam building fervor.  In 1953, he utilized the Civilian Conservation Corps to improve the rutted two-track dirt road that the Butte Oil Company had built fifty-one years earlier and constructed two campgrounds at Logging Lake and Quartz Lake, which would be flooded if the dam were ever constructed.  Campers, hungry to explore a new part of the park, undertook the bumpy ride and camped among the moose, deer, elk, and beaver as they still do today.  Another gamble had failed.  The powerful politicians and businessmen promoting the dam failed to foresee the challenge of conservationists and a public clamoring for the protection of wild places.  They had been outmaneuvered and outplayed.  In 1976, Congress designated the U.S. reach of the North Fork a Wild and Scenic River, forever protecting it from dams or industrial development.

But the federally guaranteed protective status applied only to the North Fork, not the land through which it flowed.  The Forest Service cut roads into the Flathead National Forest, west of the river, and significantly widened and rerouted Route 486, the Outside North Fork Road, which parallels the river from Columbia Falls to Canada.  Chainsaws shrieked in the trees, and timber trucks pounded down Route 486, hauling their quarry to the mills in Columbia Falls and Kalispell.  Logging companies, in their shortsighted focus on immediate profits, pushed farther and farther into the unspoiled country that surrounded the valley.  Sediment, bleeding from the haphazard dirt roads and open clear cuts, fouled some of the tributaries that flowed into the North Fork and spoiled the breeding grounds of bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

Remarkably, despite the many incursions, the North Fork remained largely wild.  The Magic Pack, one of the first packs of gray wolves to naturally recolonize America, slipped across the border in the 1970s.  A committed and conscientious group of landowners worked hard to preserve the rural and rugged characteristic of the valley.  In 1975, the Grizzly bear was listed on the Endangered Species List and the Flathead National Forest was designated prime recovery habitat.  Logging quotas were slashed, and slowly the forests recovered.

Only one part of the North Fork remained open to natural resource speculators, the part that lay north of the border, beyond the reach of American environmental laws.  Industrial mining interests in Canada were looking for new opportunities to expand their operations, and their gaze settled on the Canadian Flathead, which overlays massive coal deposits, part of the Crowsnest Coalfield, a giant sweep of land that stretches from Alberta to British Columbia.  The ever-increasing size and capacity of haul trucks obviated the need for rail lines to transport coal, and new excavating techniques reduced the cost of large-scale extraction in such a remote, mountainous region.  Almost exactly one hundred years after the Oakes broke apart in the frigid glacial waters of the North Fork, coal mining interests returned to the valley, convinced that this time they would beat the odds that had proven too steep during the previous century.

In the mid 1980s, the Sage Creek Coal Company proposed a large open pit coal mine near the confluence of pristine Cabin Creek and the North Fork, just eight miles north of Glacier.  Park officials, activists, and the state of Montana immediately sprang to action and convinced the U.S. government to invoke the International Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, claiming the mine would damage downstream habitat and water quality.  The International Joint Commission formed a scientific review panel to investigate the proposal, and in 1988 it recommended that “the mine as presently understood and defined not be approved.”  While not bound by law to accept the ruling, the British Columbian government let the permits held by the Sage Creek Company lapse and the mine was abandoned.  Montana appropriated funds to create the Flathead Basin Commission, whose mission was to lay the scientific, legal, and diplomatic groundwork to preserve the North Fork.

The victory proved short-lived, however, and by 2001, another proposal garnered headlines in the local newspapers and again mobilized Montana state and U.S. federal officials.  The Cline Mining Corporation initially proposed an open pit mine that would recover 250,000 tons of coal annually, a project small enough to escape environmental review, according to British Columbia’s weak environmental laws.  Cline, however, planned to increase its production to between two and three million tons a year in short order.  After the details of Cline’s true plans became known, the company agreed to conduct its own environmental analysis as required by British Columbia’s laws.

But environmental analyses, especially those conducted at the bequest of industry, focus on potential impacts and the ability of the land to absorb pollutants and toxins, not biological abundance and diversity.  Consider the Elk River, one drainage north of the Flathead.  Flowing through downtown Fernie, the Elk still supports a fishery vibrant enough to encourage numerous fly shops and outfitters to hang signs on Fernie’s main street, despite a century of coal mining near its tributaries and along its banks.  But a few big game fish, suckered by a well-tied fly, do not a healthy ecosystem make.  Michels Creek, located among the sprawling coal mines that operate within the Elk River Watershed, is laced with 18 times the amount of sulfates as the North Fork, 650 times the amount of nitrates, and 57 times the amount of selenium.  The invertebrates that provide food for fish, which, in turn, provide food for bears, birds, and river otters, can barely scrape an existence from the polluted waters.

In Michels Creek, stoneflies average 450 per square meter, caddisflies under 100 per square meter.  In contrast, the Flathead in British Columbia boasts the greatest diversity of mayfly, caddisfly, and stonefly in North America. In Foisey Creek, the tributary Cline will bury under a mountain of slag, stoneflies average over 3500 per square meter. Caddisflies are almost as abundant, averaging just under 3500 per square meter where the Foisey confluences with the North Fork.  These tributary streams are critical spawning grounds for the endangered bull trout.  A genetically distinct species of the westslope cutthroat trout also spawns in these headwater creeks.  The largest non-coastal concentration of grizzly bears in North America resides partly in the valley, crossing the international border without passports.  Gray wolves hunt elk and deer in the timbered hills that rise from the valley.

Cline’s proposed Lodgepole Mine is one of several that would decimate both the invertebrates and the animals that depend on them.  They’ve expressed interest in reproposing the Sage Creek Coal Company’s Cabin Creek Mine in addition to the Lodgepole.  The Lillyburt Mine, what would be another open pit coal mine located in the North Fork’s floodplain, has also been proposed – a joint venture by Australian and Canadian firms.  In 2008, Max Resource Corporation was allowed to explore for gold along pristine Howell Creek, just a few miles from the border.  Such massive operations are impossible to mitigate, impossible to control.  Giant coal trucks will rumble along new, wider, faster, dirt roads every hour of every day for twenty years.  Pipelines and cabins, massive diesel machines, tankers full of fuel, garbage and refuse will deface the valley.  Polluted waste water will seep through the ground and resurface as part of the hydrological cycle, fouling the North Fork and inexorably spreading to Flathead Lake.  Wolves and grizzlies, curious or simply hungry, will be shot by miners, the rifle’s cold report echoing through the valley.  Game will be driven north, across the Flathead Divide and away from the fertile valley that has supported them for millennia.

On the saddle of the mountain Cline plans to raze rest stacks of long, thin boxes, bleached nearly white by the harsh summer sun.  The boxes contain core samples that Cline dug in 2005.  Like the rusting boiler on the shore of Kintla Lake, they are relics, too, but they represent the future, not the past.  If Cline’s plans are approved by the government of British Columbia, which, ever anxious for more tax revenue and new jobs, wants to approve them, the mountain on which the boxes sit will cease to be.  Cline’s proposal – a gamble in this time of global warming and economic collapse – is poised to succeed.  Theirs is no frontier adventure.  They are not confounded by geologic happenstance.  No strict environmental laws prevent them from realizing their goal.  Theirs is a well-engineered, proven calculation, bolstered by international financing and a Chinese market hungry for coal.

But a nascent local environmental movement based in Fernie is slowly gaining momentum.  Proposals to expand Waterton Lakes National Park west to the North Fork, finally adding the vital third leg of the stool, are receiving serious consideration.  A representative from one such group, Wildsight, and a representative from the National Parks Conservation Association, just testified before the United Nations, which listed the entire region a World Heritage Site at Risk this past summer.  American Rivers, a national advocacy group, and its Canadian counterpart listed the North Fork as one of the top ten most threatened rivers in North America.

The North Fork still flows pure and clean, over a hundred and twenty years after the Oakes thundered from the dock in Columbia Falls.  No dam blocks bull trout from migrating up the river, no oil rigs pump rhythmically along its banks.  The river is as it has been for millennia.  A legacy of failure has preserved this wild place, but now the possibility of success threatens it all.  Conservationists have no ace in the hole, no bluff that will force Cline to fold.  This time, the odds favor industry.

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