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B.C. gets $10-million windfall to protect Flathead River Valley

The Nature Conservancy will announce Friday that it has raised $10-million to help manage B.C.’s Flathead River Valley, which the government agreed to set aside in 2010, after intense lobbying by the state of Montana.

Garth Lenz/The Globe and Mail

Two leading conservation groups have come up with $10-million in funding to help protect a wilderness valley in British Columbia that President Barack Obama has long urged Canada to save.

Mr. Obama first called for the protection of the Flathead River Valley, in southeast B.C., in 2008, when he was seeking the Democratic nomination and wanted to garner support in Montana, where the governor was lobbying the province to ban coal mining in the watershed. The Flathead River flows south into a protected area in Montana.

The President's interest helped prompt B.C. and Montana, on the eve of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining plans to protect the valley. But it wasn't until Friday that the final piece of that agreement fell into place, with an announcement that Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Nature Conservancy (a separate U.S. group with a similar name) had secured $10-million in funding for the Flathead project.

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John Lounds, CEO of Nature Conservancy of Canada, said in an interview the money will go to the B.C. government to help implement the environmental protection provisions of the MOU, which will include compensating coal and mineral tenure holders displaced by the deal.

He said it is unusual for non-profits to give money to governments, but in this case it makes sense because it allows the MOU to be implemented. "It's a new kind of an arrangement. It hasn't been done very often before," Mr. Lounds said.

Nature Conservancy of Canada is providing up to $6-million, much of which originated with the federal government's Natural Areas Conservation Program, a $225-million investment by Ottawa meant to help non-profit organizations secure ecologically sensitive lands. The Nature Conservancy leads the program, which typically requires groups to match federal funds dollar for dollar.

Mr. Lounds said when the MOU was first signed it was hoped the U.S. government would come up with the funding, but that didn't happen when the U.S. economy faltered, so the two conservation groups decided to fill the gap.

The Nature Conservancy raised money from private donors, with the largest contribution – $2.5-million – coming from Warburg Pincus, a private equity firm founded in New York, that has offices in 9 countries. In a statement, Charles Kaye, co-president of Warburg Pincus, said his company is "proud to play a role in the preservation of the Canadian wilderness."

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who signed the MOU with then B.C. premier Gordon Campbell in 2010, said protecting the Flathead Valley is important for the environment on both sides of the border.

And federal Environment Minister Peter Kent praised the deal as "a landmark project."

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Mr. Lounds said the Flathead Valley is a special place well worth protecting.

"It's a spectacular area," he said. "Along Canada's southern boundary it's pretty hard to find a place like this where you don't have any permanent settlements … that's why it has this abundance of wildlife. You can still find the whole suite of mammals that were there before we settlers arrived in this part of the world."

Mr. Lounds said there are large populations of grizzly bears, elk and big horn sheep, and the management plan calls for current numbers to be maintained or increased.

He said although mining and petroleum developments are banned from the area, other sustainable activities will be allowed, including hunting, fishing and forestry.

Bill Bennett, Community Minister for B.C. and MLA for the region, said he is pleased that "human use will continue to be part of the sustainable future of the Flathead."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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