Wade Davis on the fight to save the Sacred Headwaters

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (7/1/12)

A valley in a rugged corner of northwestern British Columbia is the birthplace of three of Canada's most important salmon rivers: the Stikine, the Skeena and the Nass. Known as the Sacred Headwaters by the local First Nations, the valley has been called the Serengeti of Canada, because of its abundance of wildlife. Three proposals for mining in the region have drawn opposition from a number of people, including Wade Davis, author, anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

To help raise awareness about the region, Davis has written the text for a book of photographs, The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass. In a recent interview with Quirks & Quarks, he spoke about the region and the dangers that large-scale industrial projects pose.

Davis first came to the region when he was hired as the first park ranger in B.C.'s Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park. "It was his introduction to "a landscape that is as beautiful as anything I've ever seen, in my experience as an explorer in residence for the Geographic, going to as many as 30 countries a year."

Davis pointed out that the greatest canyon in the United States is the Grand Canyon of the Colorado [River], which gets five million visitors a year.

"Our biggest canyon in Canada, certainly our wildest canyon, is a canyon that most Canadians can't even name," Davis told Quirks host Bob McDonald. "It's the grand canyon of the Stikine, and in all of history, less than 50 people have ever made it through by kayak. It's known to the elite kayakers of the world as the K2 of white-water challenges, and no raft has ever made it."

Davis went on to say that "the landscape was always hallowed ground for the First Nations who moved through it. But what's really in a way sanctified it in a sense is the sacrifices that have been made over the last 10 years by this remarkable group of people who live at the community of Iskut, supported by elders who live at Telegraph Creek, who really stood up for their land and said 'we do not want industrial development.'"

This isn't the first time there have been attempts to bring major development projects into the region, but Davis believes that, amid today's resource boom, things are different both quantitatively and qualitatively.

"None of us are against all industrial development," he added. "The whole question is how many, at what pace, for whose benefit. "

Davis is most worried about three proposals. One is "an open pit copper and gold mine owned by Imperial Metals," he said. It will result in "the inundation of a pristine lake, Black Lake, with roughly 200 million tons of toxic waste rock, and the generation of perhaps 300 million tons of rock that will be spread across the plateau, all of which will drain will eventually into the nine headwater lakes of the Iskut River, the largest and most important tributary of the Stikine."

A second project "is to tear into the mountains of the headwaters itself, to create an open pit, anthracite coalmine of gargantuan scale."

The third, which Davis describes as "perhaps the most broadly threatening project from the point of view of the local people," is a proposal by Shell Canada to extract coal-bed methane gas from a million acres at the heart of the Sacred Headwaters. "You have to frack the coal to liberate the gas, you have to deal with the toxic water [used in the process], you're injecting chemical soups, if you will, at high pressure into the ground, you have a network of pipelines and roads to connect the wells that you need in great number. "

According to Davis, the area has tremendous potential for tourism. "To put developments there is going to preclude any potential that this place indeed has to generate huge amounts of revenue through the travel industry."

The region is so isolated, does such development really matter? Its remoteness (even B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell hasn't visited it) is part of why Davis wanted to bring attention to it through his book. "Let's have all Canadians make a decision about this. What I find disturbing is that decisions are being made by a very small minority of those with a vested interest in developing these mines."

Davis points to the establishment of Gwai Haanas (South Moresby) National Park as a precedent for what he'd like to see happen. The canyon lands are already protected as part of Mount Edziza Park and the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park; he'd like to see protection extended to the Sacred Headwaters and establish development projects on the periphery of the land.

"The most important thing, I would hope, would be that Canadian people pay attention to what's going on there so that their voices can be heard," he said.

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The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass

by Wade Davis

Buy this book at:

Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

From the publisher:

"In a rugged knot of mountains in northern British Columbia lies a spectacular valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, three of Canada's most important salmon rivers -- the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass -- are born in close proximity. Now, against the wishes of all First Nations, the British Columbia government has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development..."

Read more at D & M Books.