The Flathead Valley is home to the largest population of inland grizzlies on the continent and also holds massive coal and gas reserves. ((Sierra Club of B.C.))

B.C.'s Liberal government has announced plans to ban all mining and oil and gas development in the Flathead Valley, located in the southeastern corner of the province.

The move, which follows years of protests and international campaigning by environmentalists, was announced by the government on Tuesday during the speech from the throne read by Lt.-Gov. Steven Point.

"Mining, oil and gas development and coal-bed gas extraction will not be permitted in British Columbia's Flathead Valley," he said.

Point said the province, led by Premier Gordon Campbell, wants to build a new "creative economy" around clean technology, innovative forestry industries and tourism.

'Everyone who cares about wildlife, fish water and a healthy ecosystem, they have to applaud the government's actions.' —Environmentalist John Bergenske

The government still plans to allow some logging in the valley, along with hunting and other recreation — but mining and petroleum is out.

Environmentalist John Bergenske said he would prefer to see the area turned into a park, but he was still impressed with the change of direction by the government.

'I think the provincial government has taken a great step for the Flathead. Everyone who cares about wildlife, fish water and a healthy ecosystem, they have to applaud the government's actions," said Bergenske, who is the executive director of Wildsight, one of the groups that led the campaign to save the Flathead.

The ban was engineered largely by Bill Bennett, the only B.C. Liberal MLA in the Kootenays and a former minister of mines with the government.

'"When I'm done with politics, I'm going to look back at the Flathead as one of my proudest moments. We've managed to protect the Flathead while at the same time allowing access for my constituents," said Bennett.

"I think it is the best of all possible worlds. We are going to be able to continue to manage the area, but protect it for the future," said Bennett.

Miners voice concerns

It is expected the province will now have to sit down with those companies and negotiate compensation deals. Some miners have already voiced their concerns about the ban.

Gavin Dirom, the B.C. president of the Association for Mineral Exploration, said about 10 per cent of the region has already been staked, and to arbitrarily kick them out is wrong.

'This is a political decision made with little regard for due process.' — Gavin Dirom, B.C. president of the Association for Mineral Exploration

"It's a decision taken with very little public discussion and input… This is a political decision made with little regard for due process," said Dirom.

One company has spent millions on a coal deposit in the valley and the province is going to have to compensate miners with claims in the Flathead, he said.

He's also concerned about the message the ban will send to companies considering mining projects in other parts of the province.

"The message is not positive with respect to how tenure holders are treated in this province," he said. 

But at least one claimholder says he is OK with the ban. Bob Blom, has a small quarry deep in the Flathead Valley, which he won't likely be able to mine anymore.

Blom said he's willing to sit down and talk to government about buying out his claim.

"The scenery there is absolutely remarkable and I honestly think we rape and pillage too much of our own province," said Blom.

Environmental battleground

Like Clayoquot Sound, and the Stein River Valley before it, the East Kootenays Flathead Valley has been an environmental battleground for years.

In recent years prime ministers, U.S. presidents and even the United Nations waded into the debate, asking the B.C. government to protect the pristine valley, which borders national parks in Alberta and the U.S.

The valley is home to the largest population of inland grizzlies on the continent, but it also holds massive coal and gas reserves that Shell and other oil and gas companies have spent millions of dollars preparing to explore and develop.

In 2003, the Liberal government's land-use plan for the area set mining as a high priority and said other uses such as wildlife habitat and recreation "will not preclude … approval of mining activities," and oil exploration, gas drilling and coal mining were all proposed for the Flathead Valley in recent years

In January, a team of UN scientists recommended a moratorium on mining in the valley, noting nearby Glacier National Park in Montana and Waterton International Park in Canada were designated as a World Heritage site in 1995 because of their outstanding scenery and abundant wildlife.

With files from The Associated Press