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A view from the top: Why protecting the Flathead River Valley is so important

There are few images more representative of Canada’s wilderness than the mountain tops and forested valleys of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. Just a few short weeks ago, I ventured across the province to see these landscapes for myself, and as much as I’d love to say I knew what I should have been expecting, I really had no idea. It was bigger, better, and wilder than I had imagined.

I headed to the Southern Rockies with Peter Wood, our Director of Terrestrial Campaigns, to meet CPAWS’ partners in the Flathead Wild coalition – along with this group of bright and talented conservation partners, we’ve been working to create a national park and a wildlife management area in a special place in the Rockies called the Flathead River Valley for many years. The Flathead is in the farthest reaches of the south-eastern corner of the province, and plays an important role in connecting the protected landscapes that surround the valley.

 The Flathead Wild team: CPAWS-BC, Sierra Club BC, Wildsight, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), Headwaters Montana, and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). Photo by Mark Worthing.

One of the reasons why the Flathead is so vital for wildlife connectivity in the Rockies is because it’s the last valley of its kind in Southern Canada that has never been permanently settled, so the ecosystem has been left more or less intact. It’s also important because it’s a core piece in a larger mosaic of connected valleys and critical wildlife habitat throughout the length of the Yellowstone to Yukon wildlife corridor. It's one of the most biologically important places on the planet, yet it remains unprotected.

The surrounding valleys are just as important in the campaign to protect the Flathead as the core part of the valley itself, which is why this year, the Flathead Wild team chose to have our annual meetings and group hike outside of the Flathead Valley. Instead, we headed to the Elk Valley, which adjoins the Flathead to the north and to the west.

 A view of the northern part of the Elk River Valley, one of the few places in the valley that’s protected, in Elk Lakes Provincial Park. Photo by Peter Wood.

Passing through the Elk River watershed (which encompasses towns like Fernie, Sparwood and Elkford), we saw a lot of altered landscapes. Whether it was the clear-cuts we could see from the highway, or the mountain-top mines that were partially hidden from view, it was evident that a lot of the Elk River watershed has not been spared from the impacts of industrialization.

What’s worth pointing out, however, is that hidden in and around these impacted landscapes are places that have been kept wild and just out of reach – places like the proposed Hornaday Wilderness Area, which is one of the places we’re working to protect as part of our Flathead Wild campaign.

 Just one of the many spectacular vistas in the Hornaday Wilderness. Photo by Ruth Midgley.

The Hornaday Wilderness is one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever visited in Canada, not just because it was beautiful (which, of course, it was) but because the number of people who visit it each year can usually be counted on one hand. And yet, it’s so accessible that our group of 13 people, 5 dogs and 3 horses was able to get in and out in just five days.

 Our fantastic guide and the biggest driver behind protecting the Hornaday Wilderness, Bill Hanlon, and his horses. Photo by Peter Wood.

One of my biggest “Aha!” moments, where the importance of the work we’re doing really hit home, came about halfway through the trip. We had taken a day to explore some of the mountain tops and ridges that divide the Elk River and Bull River watersheds. Walking north along one ridge, I looked out to my right at the Hornaday Wilderness – completely untouched, calm, beautiful. To my left, a landscape that was worlds apart – roads everywhere, clear cuts running up and down the valley as far as I could see, and an overwhelming sense of permanency in the altered nature of the landscape.

 The view into the Bull Valley, which runs along the western boundary of the Elk River watershed. These roads and clear cuts ran in stark contrast to the intact wilderness just on the other side of this ridge. Photo by Robyn Duncan.

The visual impact of this contrast is something that will stick with me forever. Before this trip, I had understood on a fundamental level why the campaign to protect and connect these landscapes is so important, but after actually seeing the impacts of development on the neighbouring landscape myself, it turned into something very real for me. Seeing how deeply impacted the landscape was, it's hard not to feel the sense of urgency in protecting the Hornaday Wilderness and the other areas that are part of the Flathead campaign.

Protecting these landscapes is important on so many levels. Beyond the obvious benefits to wildlife of connecting critical habitat throughout the Rockies, many of us also look to the wilderness as an emotional and spiritual sanctuary. These are places we go to connect with the natural world and to get in touch with ourselves. They're places we want our children and grandchildren to know as something more than just photos in a history book – we want to keep these places wild so they can know and love them as we do.

I consider myself lucky to have been able to experience a beautiful part of our province that most people don’t even know exist. I’m even luckier to be part of such a dynamic group of people whose tireless work to protect these special places has achieved some pretty notable conservation gains already, and I can’t wait to see where this campaign carries us.

 The CPAWS contingent: Peter and I after a beautiful climb up a mountain in the Hornaday Wilderness.


To find out more about our campaign to create a national park in the Flathead River Valley and a Wildlife Management Area in the surrounding valleys, visit