British Columbia has passed a law that bans mining and drilling in nearly 400,000 acres upstream of Glacier National Park, fulfilling a trans-border agreement to protect the Canadian portion of the Flathead River Basin.
The law approved Monday by the Canadian province's government comes more than a year after Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and then-British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell signed an agreement to halt exploration work and development in the remote valley north of Glacier park.
"It's the final stamp of approval to the (agreement)," Schweitzer said Wednesday. "This has been a long process, five years of intensive negotiations."
Bebe Crouse, spokeswoman for The Nature Conservancy, said the new law is a major step toward protecting the Flathead River Basin, whose vast tracts of forests and mountain peaks are home to grizzly bears and wolves.
"I think this really is taking away the biggest threat that was up there," Crouse said.
The land straddles the border, is next to the Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park and is part of the 10-million acre area known as the Crown of the Continent. Companies have tried for more than a quarter-century to develop the basin with proposals for gas drilling, gold exploration and coal mining.
On the U.S. side, about 80 percent of the oil and gas leases along the river basin have been retired. Legislation to retire the rest is pending in Congress.
Michael Jamison, the manager of the National Parks Conservation Association's Crown of the Continent program, said now that Canada has acted, it's the U.S. government's turn.
"We have an international obligation to reciprocate, and we have a bill in Congress that would do just that," Jamison said in a statement.
Schweitzer, speaking by cellphone while returning from a trade mission to Brazil, said he believes those leases from the Reagan era are invalid and that formally retiring them is unnecessary.
Part of the Montana-British Columbia agreement was to compensate companies with existing mineral rights. In February, The Nature Conservancy Canada and the agency's U.S. organization agreed to split the cost after the possibility of federal funding began to look doubtful.
"We fully expected the federal government would come up with the resources, but they delayed and then they denied," Schweitzer said. "The federal government was either unable or unwilling, so The Nature Conservancy stepped up."
The British Columbia's law's passage should boost The Nature Conservancy's efforts to raise the $9.4 million needed to pay two Canadian mining companies for what they've spent in exploration.
The conservancy's Canada and U.S. operations have so far raised about $6.5 million in gifts and pledges, Crouse said.