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UN to investigate mining in Flathead Valley

VANCOUVER - Mining and energy development in British Columbia's Flathead Valley has UNESCO concerned about the potential risks to an adjacent world heritage site, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

UNESCO's world heritage committee announced today it will send a fact-finding mission to the region to investigate and "evaluate and provide recommendations on the requirements for ensuring the protection" of Waterton-Glacier. It has also asked Canada and the US to prepare a report by February, 2010 that examines all Flathead River Valley energy and mining proposals and their cumulative impacts.

Last May, 11 Canadian and U.S. environmental groups petitioned UNESCO's world heritage committee to declare the site in danger, following a proposal for mountain top coal mine development in the Flathead.

"The Flathead River Valley provides critical habitat for rare and endangered species that migrate to and from Waterton-Glacier, and it has the highest density of grizzly bears in the interior of North America," Wildsight's Ryland Nelson told the Vancouver Sun at the time.

This fact-funding mission is the first part of the process to declare a world heritage site in danger. If Waterton-Glacier receives that status, it would be the first in North America.

"We think it's a great decision," said Chloe O'Loughlin, spokesperson for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society [CPAWS]. "But we don't want it to become a site in danger. We want this fixed." CPAWS, and others, are calling for the lower third of the valley to be declared a national park, and for the establishment of a wildlife management area for the rest.

This summer, a group of photographers will document the Flathead Valley, in an effort to move B.C. and Canada to protect it.

Calls to the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources were not promptly returned.

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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