Don’t sacrifice the Sacred Headwaters

By WADE DAVIS | Explorer-in-residence, National Geographic Society

In a rugged knot of mountains, in the remote reaches of northern British Columbia, lies a stunningly beautiful valley known to the first nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, on the southern edge of the Spatsizi Wilderness – the Serengeti of Canada – are born in remarkably close proximity three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers: the Stikine, Skeena and Nass.

In a long day, perhaps two, it is possible to walk through open meadows, following the trodden tracks of grizzly, caribou and wolf, and drink from the very sources of the three rivers that inspired so many of the great cultures of the Pacific Northwest: the Gitxsan and Wet’sutwet’en, the Carrier and Sekani, the Tsimshian, Nisga’a, Tahltan, Haisla and Tlinglit. Keep on for another three days, and you’ll reach the origins of the Finlay, headwaters of the Mackenzie, Canada’s greatest river of all.

The only other place I know where such a wonder of geography occurs is in Tibet, where from the base of Mount Kailas arise three of the great rivers of Asia – the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra – vital arteries that bring life to more than a billion people downstream. Revered by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, Kailas is considered so sacred that no one is allowed to walk on its slopes, let alone climb to its summit. The thought of violating its flanks with industrial development would represent for all peoples of Asia an act of desecration beyond all imagining. Anyone who would even dare propose such a deed would face the most severe of sanctions, in both this world and the next.

In Canada, we treat the land quite differently. Against the wishes of all first nations, the B.C. government has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development. The most ominous project is a proposal by Royal Dutch Shell to extract coal-bed methane gas from the area’s anthracite deposit, across an enormous tenure of close to a million acres. Should this project go ahead, it would imply a network of several thousand wells, linked by roads and pipelines, laid on the landscape of the entire Sacred Headwaters basin.

Coal-bed methane recovery is, by all accounts, a highly invasive process. To free the methane from the anthracite, technicians must fracture the coal seams with massive injections of chemical agents under high pressure – as much as 350,000 gallons at a shot – a technique that, in some deposits, liberates enormous volumes of highly toxic water. More than 900 chemicals, many of them powerful carcinogens, are registered for use, but for proprietary reasons, companies do not have to disclose the identity of the solutions employed at any given site.

Environmental concerns aside, think for a moment of what such proposals imply about our culture. We accept it as normal that people who have never been on the land, who have no history or connection to the country, may legally secure the right to come in and, by the very nature of their enterprises, leave in their wake a cultural and physical landscape utterly transformed and desecrated. What’s more, in granting such mining concessions, often initially for trivial sums to speculators from distant cities, companies cobbled together with less history than my dog, the government places no cultural or market value on the land itself.

The cost of destroying a natural asset, or its inherent worth if left intact, has no metric in the economic calculations that support the industrialization of the wild. No company has to compensate the public for what it does to the commons, the forests, mountains and rivers, which, by definition, belong to everyone. It merely requires permission to proceed. This is very odd, if you think about it, and surely reflects a mindset that ought no longer to have a place in a world in which wild lands are becoming increasingly rare and valuable.

The people of the Sacred Headwaters, the men and women of the Iskut First Nation who have rallied against these developments, have a very different way of thinking about the land. For them, the Sacred Headwaters is a neighbourhood, at once their grocery store and sanctuary, their church and schoolyard, their cemetery and country club. They believe that the people with the greatest claim to ownership of the valley are the generations as yet unborn. The Sacred Headwaters will be their nursery. The Iskut elders, almost all of whom grew up on the land, have formally called for the end of all industrial activity in the valley and the creation of a Sacred Headwaters Tribal Heritage Area.

Since the summer of 2005, Iskut men, women and children, together with Tahltan supporters from Telegraph Creek and beyond, have maintained an educational camp at the head of the only road access to the Sacred Headwaters. Those who would violate the land they hold in trust have been denied entry. Those who accept and revere the land as it is have been welcomed. With everyone, they have shared their vision of a new era of sustainable stewardship both for their homeland and the entire northwest quadrant of the province. After more than two years on the line, they are not about to give up.

In the end, what is at stake is the future of one of the most extraordinary regions in North America. The fate of the Sacred Headwaters transcends the interests of local residents, provincial agencies, mining companies and those few among the first nations who favour industrial development at any cost. The voices of all Canadians deserve to be heard. B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, to his immense credit, has attached his legacy to the fight against global warming, boldly calling for a 33-per-cent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. What better way to celebrate such a courageous act of leadership than to say to Royal Dutch Shell that no amount of methane gas can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that can be the Sacred Headwaters of all Canadians.