Mining Firms Deplore British Columbia Park

Environmentalists welcome huge new wilderness preserve next to Alaskan panhandle for hikers and grizzlies

THE score is grizzly bears one, mining industry zero.

The creation of a huge new wilderness park on the edge of the Pacific means that British Columbia's mining industry has lost a major battle with the environmental movement. The preserve, saved for grizzly bears, salmon, and backpackers, signals the end of a mining project that might have supplied 1 percent of the world's copper. "The government changed the rules of the game," charges George Miller, president of the Mining Association of Canada. "There was an environmental assessment under way for an enti re mining operation, and all of a sudden the entire area is a park."

The park, Tatshenshini-Alsek, is in the northwestern corner of British Columbia, adjoining Alaska and the Yukon. It covers 2.5-million acres, twice the size of the Grand Canyon. It abuts parks in Alaska and the Yukon to create a 23-million acre wilderness area, said to be the largest in the world.

The mine at Windy Craggy, in the process of being developed by Geddes Resources of Vancouver, British Columbia, would have been an open pit mine producing copper and some gold, all shipped out on a two-lane road to a port at Haines, Alaska. The government of Alaska is unhappy about losing business from the proposed mine. "The loss of the enormous potential economic value of the Windy Craggy mines will impact those living on both sides of the border," says Alaska Gov. Wall Hickel.

The mining company has already spent $50 million (Canadian; US$39 million) developing the mine site and says it will seek damages from the British Columbia government. "We will be seeking compensation for several hundred million dollars at least," says Ronald Burns, vice president of Geddes Resources. He says compensation would be based on the value of the lost potential mining income.

The British Columbia government has taken the environmental high road. Provincial Premier Mike Harcourt says mining and the environment are not compatible. "This is one of the most spectacular wilderness areas in the world and today B.C. is living up to its global responsibility to keep it that way," Mr. Harcourt says. "This wasn't a decision about mining, this was about a unique and exciting opportunity for the people of the world."

It may also have been a political opportunity for British Columbia's socialist government to play to the environmental audience. Environmental groups have praised the creation of the new wilderness park. "This is a really special area and it's world-recognized," says Vicki Husband, chairman of the Sierra Club of Canada. "The mine would have been an environmental disaster."

Environmentalists have not been happy with the British Columbia government in the past. They have been especially critical of a decision to allow logging in a wilderness area called Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. But the new park has them back on the government's side.

Terence Corcoran, who writes a free-market-oriented column in Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper, says the government does not have "a sense of geographical scale."

"The Windy Craggy copper mine project ... would take up only 11,000 hectares [27,500 acres]," Mr. Corcoran writes. "If plunked on Vancouver Island, the Windy Craggy mine would be proportionately equivalent to taking up a piece of land in an eight-block radius around the Empress Hotel in Victoria, leaving the rest of the [300-mile-long] island untouched." Corcoran suggests the mine would have produced $8.5 billion in economic activity.

There also have been suggestions that the British Columbia government has reacted to pressure from the United States, and especially Vice President Al Gore. Last year the adjacent Glacier Bay park in Alaska was declared a World Heritage site. Mr. Gore said he hoped that might kill the copper-mining project in Canada. It has, but the Canadians reject suggestions that the Americans had anything to do with it. "This was a made-in-British-Columbia decision," says Harcourt, British Columbia's premier, when as ked about US pressure.

The mining industry says the decision is an economic disaster, sending the wrong message to potential investors. "It has a very serious impact on future investment, on future exploration," says Gary Livingston, president of the Mining Association of British Columbia.

"Why put in the time to explore?," asks Toronto mining analyst David Davidson. "People will say, `We'd better take our money and go elsewhere.' "

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