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The breathtaking landscape of the Sacred Headwaters. (Photo: Paul Colangelo/paulcolangelo.com)

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

Posted on March 22, 2012
Written by Stacy Bradshaw

Water Canada recently spoke with Canadian anthropologist, best-selling author, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis, about his new book, The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass.

The book is a collection of photographs of the Sacred Headwaters, a valley that lies in a rugged knot of mountains in northern British Columbia and is home to three of Canada’s most significant salmon-bearing rivers. Davis’ compelling text, which describes the region and the current threats to it, makes it an exposé of sorts. Davis calls it a “love letter” to the country, and his message is undeniable:

“There can be no greater crime against nature than to destroy a river. And there can be no greater act of restitution than to restore the heath and flow of a river that has been compromised,” Davis told Water Canada.

The Sacred Headwaters has been opened up as a site for several major industrial development projects. The imposition poses a long list of consequences for the valley, the highly concentrated wildlife, and the people of Tahltan First Nation who call it home.

The Sacred Headwaters book was pulled together in some haste, admits Davis. But the urgency couldn’t be more prudent. This week, the Ontario Recreation Council of British Columbia released BC’s Most Endangered Rivers List for 2012. Sacred Headwaters, along with the Kokish River, tops the list.

“We’re talking about proposals, for example, on a mountain called Todagin, which is revered by the Tahltan people as a wildlife sanctuary in the sky. It’s home to the largest population and nursery grounds of the largest population of Stone Sheep in the world. And here we have a company, the 75th-largest mining company in Canada, that has flown through the environmental assessment process even though the project, by definition, implies a transformation of the landscape.”

The project design calls for the mining company to release its tailings into an Alpine lake, according to Davis. Over the course of 200 or 300 years, these tailings will move down the lake chains, through the nine lakes of the headwaters and into the salmon-bearing Stikine.

“No question about it,” says Davis. “Eventually water gets everywhere.”

Davis carefully points out that his argument isn’t against mining. He’s calling for a more tempered kind of development that places a value on the land left alone. And he’s not necessarily implying the impossible task of assigning a specific market value or monetary value to every corner of the landscape, but rather, a shift in the priorities to include the consequences of the proposed development.

Davis calls for government and industry to be more judicious in where mines are placed and suggests the Environmental Assessment (EA) process is transparently skewed in favour of industrial development.

“They passed [the EA process] because they agreed that they will somehow mitigate the destruction of that lake by ‘enhancing the trout habitat on an adjacent lake.’”

The plans to build a concrete spawning ground do not satisfy Davis’ definition of trout mitigation; he calls it a “manipulation of rhetoric.”

To put the value of this land in perspective, he explains that in the lower 48 U.S. states there is only one river that flows more than 1,000 kilometres uncompromised by dams. The fact that these three Canadian rivers flow freely to the sea is both highly unusual and is something of which all Canadians should be aware.

“If you look around the world more and more rivers are literally running dry … to have a country like Canada where the rivers run free to the sea is something that is highly unusual. And it’s something to be valued.”

Stacy Bradshaw is Water Canada’s web managing editor.

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