Home to diverse groups of people and wildlife, Montana's mountains must be conserved carefully. But the mountains don’t stop at the Canadian border, and one country's actions can affect the other. So a growing collective of conservation, industry, education and cultural leaders are working together to preserve the land and lifestyles on both sides of the border.
Now in its sixth year, the Roundtable On the Crown of the Continent met this week in Missoula, bringing together about 200 people who live and work in the northern Rocky Mountains to identify challenges and celebrate a few successes.
The region dubbed “The Crown of the Continent” covers more than 28,000 square miles, extending from Missoula and Helena north into Alberta and British Columbia, stopping in the mountains abeam Lethbridge, Alberta. It includes several governments, a myriad of land uses and a lot of people who are not all going to see eye-to-eye. The Roundtable was created to build relationships between governments, groups and citizens so people can exchange ideas how to save the best of the Crown. This year, a big emphasis was on ways to engage young people so they continue the work begun by the Roundtable.
Several government leaders saw fit to make an appearance, including Gov. Steve Bullock and representatives from the province of Alberta and Montana’s tribes.
“You are highlighting the breadth of the issues that impact this entire region that we enjoy, from the economy to the culture, as well as highlighting at times different viewpoints and building paths for collaboration,” Bullock said. “One thing that I think is undoubtedly apparent is the values that we share. We all understand the things that make the Crown so special, from the wide-open spaces and the economic potential to the individuals that populate this area, past and present.”
Those wide-open spaces got a little wider over this past year as some enviable jewels were added to the Crown, including most of the Rocky Mountain Front east of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the North Fork of the Flathead River and most recently, the Castle Wilderness Area in Alberta, Canada.
Little by little, areas within the Crown are gaining some sort of protection, giving future generations the chance to see it as it is today. Even though it’s more developed than it was 50 years ago, it retains much of the character that prompts tourists to visit again and again.
As a result, wildlife populations have a better chance of surviving in Montana and Canada than they do in more developed parts of the West. Large swaths of open land remain intact and connected, allowing wildlife to move more freely through the forests and grasslands of the Crown.
But industry is not eliminated. Many conservation easements and landowner agreements allow sustainable logging and agriculture to continue as it has for decades in areas like the Blackfoot Valley, the Front Range and the Whitefish area.
All the work that has forged these successes are blending into a single narrative as each preservation piece falls into place for the Crown of the Continent, said National Parks Conservation Association representative Michael Jamison.
“The Castle Wilderness, the North Fork and the Front didn’t happen out of benign neglect – we put them there,” Jamison said. “If we don’t tell the story, someone else will. Developers will tell a very different story.”
Probably few people know that better than Native Americans. But this year, the Roundtable had a healthy helping of tribal participants who told of their own successes in preserving aspects of the Crown. The region is home to several tribes, including the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, the Blackfeet of Montana and the Blood Tribe of Alberta.
In spite of a last minute court challenge, the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes just took control of the Kerr Dam on the Flathead River, which will now be called the Salish Kootenai Dam, said CSKT Natural Resources Chief Rich Janssen. In April, the CSKT also reached an eleventh-hour agreement with the state on its treaty water although Congress must ratify it. A big part of the CSKT policy is effective irrigation management to keep enough water in streams for trout.
The Blackfeet are farther along on finalizing their water compact, but they are still fighting for rights on one part of the Crown that is not protected: the Badger Two Medicine.
“Generations come and go, but the place stays the same,” said Blackfeet representative Terry Tatsey. “When things were going well for our people, we always still protected the place, the Badger Two Medicine. But in the darker times, when we hit starvation and oppression, the Badger Two Medicine was a place for us to go. It provided sanctuary. That’s why we’ve got to take care of places of importance, because at some point in time, they provide that future for us as a people.”
The time when people and wildlife need that sanctuary may not be far away.
After a summer of drought and wildfire, one of the biggest challenges the Crown faces is climate change.
Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said climate change had obvious effects on the park this year, from low snow at Logan Pass to the early opening of the Going to the Sun Road to wildfires starting in June and continuing through the summer. Some backcountry areas ran out of water, Mow said.
“This summer, I think, is an indicator of things to come. How do I get this organization to be more adaptable to changing conditions?” Mow said.
Bullock echoed Mow’s concerns about climate change and highlighted another threat: efforts to transfer federal land to the states. Almost two-thirds of the Crown region is public land, so land transfer could undo all the work that has gone into creating the communities and sanctuaries nestled in the northern Rocky Mountains.
“Access to public lands is a birthright, something that I’m fighting to protect for my kids and I’m also instilling within them the values of what makes these opportunities so special,” Bullock said. “Part of the fabric of our state and this region is really that these lands must be open, the lands and the waters should be accessible, and those efforts to close them off should never be successful. They should be accessible to all of us.”