B.C. natives seek to protect land, pristine river


ISKUT, B.C. — Seated in a large circle, flanked by a mountain plateau that is headwaters to great North American rivers, natives from northern British Columbia convened last weekend to keep the global economy from seizing their remote corner of the Earth.

The robed tribal leaders vowed to resist “unwanted resource development” on land still vital for subsistence, and that the birthplace of the Stikine, Skeena and Nass rivers will remain “wild, beautiful and sacred forever.”

The “headwaters initiative” may become for native rights what the Stikine is to rivers.

The Stikine begins as a brook but grows into a big, powerful 400-mile-long river, rushing through Canada’s greatest canyon and boring through the Coast Mountains to its estuary near Wrangell, Alaska.

Near the site of last weekend’s meeting, Shell Canada has drilled test wells for a possible coal bed methane project. Eight major mining projects are under exploration or development in the Stikine-Iskut River system.

Joel Connelly / P-I Tribal chiefs and elders from northern British Columbia convene in a historic hunting area at the headwaters of several major river systems in Iskut, B.C., last weekend. Marie Louie of the Iskut Band, third from left, leads a ceremony that symbolized their determination to keep the land “wild, beautiful and sacred forever.” If Shell Canada represents the global economy, an elderly Tahltan tribal elder named Loveman Nole stands for the subsistence economy.

“We make our living here by hunting moose, caribou and sheep on the mountain,” Nole said. “We have a culture camp for the young. They, the companies, just come into our land and use it.

“There’s nothing, there’s never been jobs around here. We hunt. We trap a little. We fish a little in the winter. All my life here, I have never gone a day without a meal.”

Has anyone ever tried to eat a gas well?

The natives aren’t naysayers.

They are willing to let mines operate, if multinationals leave alone such sacred, vital places as the headwaters country. A big copper-gold mine called Galore, in the lower Stikine, is a project that could avoid major environmental or cultural damage.

Native activists want mines developed one at a time, to guarantee a sustainable source of local jobs. They do not want outside companies to strip the Stikine of its mineral resources in 20 or 30 years, and then leave.

“They either measure up or they don’t,” said Sandra Jack, cool, articulate young chief of the Taku Band.

What are the natives talking about?

A three-hour drive south, the Bell-Irving River is a scene of vast clearcuts. The valley’s trees were cut down and shipped, unprocessed, out of Stewart, B.C., to Asian markets.

The headwaters country deserves better. It is a kind of Eden — with mosquitoes.

Nearby Spatsizi Provincial Park is renowned for its populations of moose and Stone’s sheep. Rafting parties engage in howl-ins with wolves. A grizzly bear wandered in the valley below the weekend convocation.

Controversy over the Stikine has barely been heard in corporate offices of far-off Vancouver and Toronto, or the ornate Parliament Building in Victoria.

Its major local native group, the Tahltans, has been split between a pro-mining tribal government and elders who staged a lengthy sit-in at tribal offices last year. Other sit-ins have discouraged Shell and Fortune Minerals from work on coal claims in the headwaters country.

With native leaders traveling hundreds of miles to last weekend’s gathering, however, the battle has been joined.

The whole world soon will be watching British Columbia. Vancouver is hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics. The provincial government pledges its games will be history’s “greenest.”

Such a promise will be hard to sustain if British Columbia lets a mining company “walk” a Caterpillar D6 and excavator through a fisheries stream near Iskut.

The province would have to tell the world why an open-pit mine is located next to a premier Stone’s sheep calving area.

And it might need to explain why salty water from coal-methane development is getting into North Coast salmon streams vital to U.S. and Canadian fishers.

Premier Gordon Campbell last year promised a “new relationship” with B.C. natives, who have a history of unresolved land claims with the province.

At the same time, Campbell has put up a welcome sign and declared, “British Columbia is open for business.”

The booming Chinese market for metals — and rising prices — makes it economical to pursue claims in remote places once abandoned as infeasible.

With Shell, about 8.3 trillion cubic feet of coal bed methane lies beneath the ancestral hunting grounds that Loveman Nole has used all his life and where his grandchildren are learning tribal customs (and how to put together videos on natives’ gatherings).

“We have to protect our interests,” Marie Louie, newly elected Iskut Band chief, stressed repeatedly to the convocation.

In asking sensitivity and restraint, northwest B.C. natives are challenging the way business is done in corporate boardrooms and provincial cabinet meetings.

Dr. David Suzuki, the acclaimed scientist who hosts CBC-TV’s “The Nature of Things,” quietly watched last weekend’s gathering and briefly spoke.

“You live in a remote corner of the world,” he told the natives. “Well, I must tell you, the world is at your doorstep. Nowhere can you go on this planet to escape this global economy.

“This monster that is coming on to your lands has no limit to its appetites, because it believes it can grow forever.”

P-I columnist Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or joelconnelly@seattlepi.com.