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Alaska and BC: Salmon, clean water and good neighbors

  • Author: Jim Posewitz
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published September 10, 2015

There is an old saying, "Good fences make good neighbors." It would be a step up to suggest, "Really good neighbors don't need fences." The United States and Canada share a history of handling natural resources that don't do well with fences. An example would be exceptional waterfowl co-management where species like Canada geese and wild whistling swans are protected, shared and appreciated across an entire continent consistent with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Another important example is the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. This treaty, one of the most forward looking in the world, was negotiated during the tenure of Canada's Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the tenure of President Theodore Roosevelt -- America's conservation president. The treaty resulted in the creation of an International Joint Commission to ensure that Article IV of the treaty be honored; specifically, that our international waters "shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other."

Thirty years ago, a water-quality issue surfaced on Montana's North Fork of the Flathead River. A potential coal mine in British Columbia posed a threat to a pristine river that forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park. As a result, the governments of the U.S. and Canada asked the IJC to make recommendations that would help ensure compliance with the Boundary Waters Treaty. In response to this referral, the IJC established the Flathead River International Study Board to gather information essential to the deliberations. A Canadian representative and I co-chaired that board.

In 1985, scientists from both countries assembled to assess the physical/chemical environment and associated fish and wildlife resources. In 1988, the International Study Board reported their findings to the IJC. In turn, all six IJC commissioners -- three U.S. members and three Canadian members -- recommended that, to ensure the Boundary Waters Treaty be honored, "the mine proposal as presently defined ... not be approved." The IJC added additional scrutiny to the complex and contentious issue. The facts produced led the commissioners to a science-based decision consistent with the treaty, the provisions of which they were sworn to uphold.

A generation later, we now observe that both governments have since increased levels of protection afforded the shared Flathead River watershed. Those of us active on the Flathead issue 30 years ago can now pass in peace knowing we were there for a vulnerable river at a needed moment.

The people of Alaska and British Columbia share another such moment now. The Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers presently face decisions that will define their future. Should advice be sought from our experience, a referral to the IJC makes clear sense. It would furnish all participants a database of facts essential to making public policy decisions on the magnificent watersheds of northern B.C. and Southeast Alaska's Transboundary Region. These rivers, their salmon, other fish and wildlife, and the associated human communities are worthy of our collective best possible effort.

What the referral to the IJC brought to the North Fork of the Flathead was an impartial observer with the capacity to gather facts. Their direction to the scientists gathering those facts was to find and deliver the truth. Once that was done, the IJC could and did meet its responsibility under the Boundary Waters Treaty. What was avoided is the political "spin" that at times was brought to the issue by both pro-development regulators and river advocates.

The risk you take is yielding some control to a treaty that we have honored for over a century and a reasonable amount of time the IJC needs to do its work. Given the value of the magnificent rivers at stake, it is surely a risk worth taking. I suspect that if Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Theodore Roosevelt were still around, they would view a referral of the issue to the IJC with a sense of satisfaction and pride.

While the terrain up north is not conducive to fencing, we can still be good neighbors.

Jim Posewitz of Helena, Montana, has served as the executive director of both The Cinnabar Foundation and Orion -- The Hunter's Institute. He worked for the State of Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks for more than 30 years.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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