There’s a saying that “you fall in love with Alaska, but marry Montana.” Obviously, based on Alaska’s population of 745,000-plus, many chose to marry this state. But the saying is apt because Alaska and Montana have a lot in common. People know both states for their wilderness character, personal freedoms, natural splendors, abundant wildlife, and clean water. Both states also share a common border with British Columbia.
I recently joined other Montanans and Alaskans in Washington, D.C. and had the good fortune to meet with U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, to talk about BC, a neighbor whose actions have started to chafe — in more than just my Montana backyard.
BC markets itself as “naturally inviting.” If you travel in BC at all, you know it’s an amazing place with mountains that go beyond imagining, and a Pacific coastline, shared with Southeast Alaska, that shelters some of the most important remaining wild salmon fisheries in the world.
BC was also endowed with a vast mineral wealth hidden beneath some of those distant mountains beyond the borders. With weak environmental regulations in BC, and lax enforcement under Premier Christy Clark, the province’s policies are trending to be “naturally inviting” only to the mining industry.
When it comes to protecting shared waters and downstream fisheries, BC is already on a fast track to not only depleting their wild salmon populations, but also becoming responsible for severe downstream water degradation and impacts to U.S. fisheries. And by downstream, I mean the wild rivers that feed into the sportsmen’s paradise of Montana and the billion-dollar salmon fishery of Southeast Alaska.
Alaska shares the Taku, Stikine, Unuk and several smaller rivers with BC. Within these watersheds, at their BC headwaters, more than 10 large-scale, open-pit and underground metal mines are in various stages of operation and development. The Tulsequah Chief mine has polluted a tributary of the Taku River for 60 years, in violation of Canadian law, and BC allowed Imperial Metals’ Red Chris mine to open in the Stikine River watershed less than six months after the tailings failure at its sister mine, Mount Polley.
Montana shares with BC the North Fork Flathead River, as well as the Kootenai with its important tributaries, the Elk and Wigwam. Near the Elk River just north of the Montana border, Teck Resources has five operating mountaintop-removal, metallurgical coal mines. All of Teck’s mines were recently granted vast expansions by BC despite Teck’s failure to reduce selenium pollution and the fact that mine wastewater in the Elk has deformed cutthroat trout, and even killed fish downstream of the mines. In fact, Teck’s new water treatment plant releases a more biologically active form of the heavy metal that makes the river more toxic to fish and people, rather than cleaning up the river, as it was intended to do.
Montana and Alaska have been individually going it alone in attempting to address these impacts and threats to our downstream waters. The solo approach hasn’t gone well. BC has managed to get Montana and Alaska, and even Washington and Idaho, to sign non-binding memoranda of understanding (MOUs) on transboundary watershed management. While BC proceeds to build new mines and expand existing mines, the downstream states are sitting ducks, bearing all of the risk of Canadian mining development and gaining nothing.
This situation with BC has profound implications for the Kootenai and the still-intact Alaska rivers. The Elk is already polluting the Kootenai to unacceptable levels in Montana. The threat to Alaska’s wild salmon rivers is only just beginning.
Lest we forget, U.S. and Canada leaders displayed great foresight in 1909 when the two countries ratified the Boundary Waters Treaty, prohibiting the degradation of transboundary waters to the detriment of either nation.
Montanans and Alaskans have important allies in their congressional delegations, all strong leaders who support local economies, traditions, and resources. We must continue to call on them, as well as on our governors, to defend our interests, and to demand enforceable protections for those of us downstream.
Regardless of which state you chose to marry, the Alaska-Montana relationship might turn out to be a powerful one. We just need to commit to holding BC and Canada accountable for its impacts to our water and fish.
• Dave Hadden of Headwaters, Montana, came to Juneau with a group from Montana and British Columbia for a transboundary water quality monitoring workshop.