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College of Forestry and Conservation

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Can’t Skip a Rock if You’re too Thirsty

By Julia Bryant, Resource Conservation major, Wilderness Studies minor
Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On the first day of our Climate Change Field Studies course, my classmates and I shared a picnic on a riverbank with Steve Thompson, Executive Director of the Cinnabar foundation. As we sat on warm rocks in the sun on the bank of the North Fork of the Flathead, Steve described our location as “the wildest valley in the lower 48,” an important wildlife corridor for many species through the Crown of the Continent. This valley holds one of the largest unconstrained rivers still in existence west of the Continental Divide.

Since 1976, the North Fork of the Flathead has been protected as a Wild and Scenic river in the United States. But the river headwaters are in Canada, where there is no formal protection of the river or surrounding lands, and then crosses the border into the United States, and flows down to Flathead Lake. The border crossing means that two countries (and two governments) share the watershed, and that the river’s fate depends on the management of both countries.

Steve Thompson shares stories about the decade’s long effort to protect the North Fork. Steve told us stories about the river as we sat listening to the water rush over the stones clearly visible in the river bottom. The river has been threatened for many years, he said, by corporations wanting to mine and extract coal bed methane just upstream of our border to access millions of tons of coal. Mining plans would essentially turn 50,000 acres of the North Fork (known in Canada as simply the Flathead) into an industrial gas field. As Steve was talking about the destructiveness of these processes, and the importance of preserving this bio-diverse habitat that the river represents, all I could think of was the water.
           
Earlier today, our class met with Dan Fagre about glacier research. He told us that glacial activity in the Park has huge adaptive implications for all life that relies on the water supply that glaciers provide. Dan showed us graphs and tables that provided persuasive arguments that the climate is changing.  I was convinced that the climate of this area is changing by pictures I saw of an icy, snowy mass called Boulder Glacier taken in 1938 that I can tell you now no longer exists.
           
When Dan discussed climate change with us and the disappearing water supply that these glaciers represent, he showed us slides of bull trout and western cutthroat fish that need cold, clean water to survive and the alpine micro-invertebrates that need this water too. I felt sad that these glaciers would probably not survive throughout my lifetime, but guilty that other creatures might not survive because of their absence.

Regardless of whether I am contributing to these changes, I have no right to pollute the remaining water in any way.
           
We are all connected by water. The North Fork doesn’t stop at the border, bears don’t stop at the border, and my carbon emissions, albeit small, leave imprints around the world. I wonder when awareness and compassion will extend across borders? Appreciation for clean water is something we should all have in common. All living things need water, and in this aspect, there is nothing separating us from one another. We are all a part of the big picture. The amount of coal that could be extracted from this area of Canada could earn someone a lot of money, but we must consider the true cost of ecologically disastrous projects such as this. I do not believe that any amount of money can buy life without water.  I am grateful for Steve Thompson and others’ work across borders that have for now secured these lands from coal development.