Photo: New Wade Davis book connects readers with the Sacred Headwaters


In one of his newest works, National Geographic explorer and honorary Foundation board member Wade Davis connects readers with the great rivers and cultures in an area of Northern B.C. under industrial threat. Published by Greystone Books in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation, The Sacred Headwaters is filled with stunning images taken by Carr Clifton and other members of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Below is an excerpt from The Sacred Headwaters by Wade Davis.

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[Excerpt] The largest project, proposed by Shell Canada, involves plans to extract methane gas from shallow coal deposits spread across an enormous tenure of close to a million acres. To secure its eight-year license, the company in 2004 paid the government a fee of $9.5 million; there was no public consultation. Should this project go ahead, it would imply a network of several thousand wells, linked by some 2,200 miles of roads and pipelines, laid upon the entire landscape of the Sacred Headwaters.

Coal bed methane (CMB) recovery is by all accounts a highly invasive process. Gas held under pressure in the coal is liberated by the removal of underground water, with each well yielding a volume sufficient to fill several Olympic sized swimming pools. Highly saline, and tainted with arsenic, barium, ammonia, boron, manganese, and radium fluoride, this toxic water must be quarantined on site in holding ponds, removed by tanker to be stored or dumped elsewhere, or injected back into the ground. The greater the number of wells and the more closely they are spaced, the more quickly water may be removed and the field brought into production. To increase the rate of methane release, technicians may fracture the coal seams with hydraulic injections of chemical agents under high pressure, as much as 350,000 gallons at a shot. Along with diesel, methanol, sodium hydroxide, the carcinogen benzene, and the radioactive element radium, more than nine hundred different chemicals are registered for use, but for proprietary reasons companies do not have to disclose the identity of the solutions employed at any given site.

Unlike conventional oil and gas production, in which a single well with innovative technologies can tap a vast reservoir of supply, with CMB recovery there is a clear incentive to increase the number of wells, despite the initial cost of installation. Each well requires a cleared pad roughly the size of a stadium baseball field, and linkage to two pipelines, one to remove water, the other to transport the gas to diesel-run compressors that pump it into higher-pressure pipelines for transmission to markets. Until the wells are fully producing, the gas must be flared, adding to the constant hum of machinery the hiss and smoke and glare of scores upon scores of flaming wells. Shell estimates that some 8 trillion cubic feet of gas await extraction from its tenure in the Sacred Headwaters. But the technology is relatively untested, and it has never been imposed in a landscape of salmon-bearing rivers. Where it has been exploited, the results have in many instances caused problems. The extraction of groundwater has altered the water table, decreased surface flows, rendered cropland infertile, and left fish-bearing streams void of life. Methane has entered aquifers. Water wells have exploded, and in some Alberta homes it is possible to set tap water aflame.

The Tahltan First Nation has never signed any treaties, and title to its land has never been extinguished or relinquished. By legal precedent, upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, no industrial project can go ahead in Tahltan territory, or in that of any First Nation, unless the parties involved, both government and industry, formally seek "accommodation and consultation" with the indigenous people. The Tahltan, and most especially the people of Iskut, have consistently voiced opposition to any initiative that threatens Klabona and the Sacred Headwaters. In the summer of 2005, as we shall see, they went as far as to establish a blockade for 62 days at the head of the only point of access, a dirt road that runs 15 miles from the Stewart-Cassiar past Ealue Lake to cross the Klappan River and reach the abandoned railroad grade, which can be followed south 125 miles to and beyond the head of the Skeena and the Sacred Headwaters. Given the extent of Tahltan opposition, it is curious that any one of these three major industrial initiatives is being considered by government, let alone actively promoted and in the case of the Red Chris mine subsidized with provincial and federal funds.

The problem in part lies with the language of the law. Just what defines proper consultation, and what determines the appropriate limits of accommodation, is open to interpretation. For the Tahltan the situation has been further complicated by the lack of a clear central authority, broadly endorsed by the people and authorized to speak in their name. Indian and Northern Affairs, the administrative arm of the Canadian government, has effectively reinforced disunity by recognizing the Tahltan Indian Band at Telegraph Creek and the Iskut First Nation as two distinct entities, unaffiliated by law. Each community elects its own chief and band council and is responsible for its own funding.

In 1975, with the creation of the Association of the United Tahltans, which in 2000 became the Tahltan Central Council (TCC), an attempt was made to convene an umbrella organization that could speak as a single voice about concerns common to all Tahltan people. From the start there were challenges, not least the weight of history separating the people of Telegraph from those at Iskut. By then the majority of Tahltan had left the Stikine and found lives in distant cities; their priorities did not always coincide with the interests of those who had elected to stay home, rooted in the land. Also undermining the authority of the TCC was the legal means by which it had been formed. Incorporated through the British Columbia Society Act, it was simply a society with little ethnographic justification or historical grounding in the culture of the Tahltan First Nation. A later attempt was made to create a governing council with representatives of the ten main Tahltan families based on traditional matrilineal descent. Though consensus was the goal, further tension was the unfortunate consequence. Iskut effectively had but three seats at the table.

Seeking certainty and a single entity with which to negotiate, industry and government have consistently recognized the TCC as the paramount Tahltan authority. It has been in their interests to do so, and neither sector has been inclined to inquire whether the TCC at any particular point was actually representing the Tahltan and Iskut people in a manner that was democratic, transparent, and untainted by corruption. As events unfolded in 2004, even as the TCC was being widely heralded by industry, it became clear to the people of both Telegraph and Iskut that something was amiss.


None of this has to happen. Egregious decisions can be reversed, and permits, most especially those issued under a cloud of malfeasance, can be revoked. If we can spend $404 million to build a power line to nowhere, we can surely afford to buy out these companies, unpalatable as that may be, to protect a land that is as unique as any destination on Earth.

Even should the entire debate be reduced to economics, it would be madness for the sake of a single mine of modest potential to compromise a place that could one day be as important to the world as Banff, Jasper, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, or the mountains of Tibet. The travel industry is the largest economic force in the world, generating each year $4.5 trillion in business activity. The total market capitalization of all mining companies in existence is some $962 billion. Red Chris offers the promise of a mere two hundred jobs. Shell Canada, once its extractive network is in place, would employ even fewer people. Viewed from the long perspective of history, it is a poor exchange indeed, both for the Tahltan and for Canada.

The plight of the Sacred Headwaters, and the question of its destiny, reaches far beyond economics to challenge Canada's very identity as a nation, even as it questions the values by which we will determine to live. At the moment a fundamental disconnect drives the dynamics of resource development. Vancouver-based executives at companies such as Imperial Metals enjoy the beauty of the lower mainland, the picturesque Gulf Islands, the snows of Whistler, no doubt boasting from time to time to their colleagues back in Toronto or New York of their good fortune to live in beautiful British Columbia, even while they profit from industrial initiatives that lay waste to the hinterland.

How would these corporate executives and government officials feel, and how would their families respond, if total strangers pulled up to their homes in Point Grey or West Vancouver, perhaps to the maple-lined streets of Rosedale in Toronto, and with back hoes and bulldozers began to tear apart their gardens? For the Tahltan, the Sacred Headwaters is a garden, and this is exactly how they feel about what they fear may happen to their land.

I wonder how different things might be if each of us had to confront directly the consequences of our demands on the natural world. Imagine if there was a law saying that before any person or company can destroy a mountain, pollute a river, tear down a forest, or violate an alpine lake, he or she or the entire board of directors of the enterprise must take their children and grandchildren to the place, camp for a week, and listen as the elders, the voices of the ancestors, explain what the proposed industrial actions will do to the land and imply for the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Imagine if all of the children got together, apart from the adults, and made a deal, a fair exchange, as children are inclined to do. For every tree destroyed on Tahltan lands, for example, the kid from the city would sacrifice one of his mother's favorite flowering shrubs from her garden. For every drop of toxic waste placed into a river or lake in Tahltan territory, an equivalent discharge would be dripped into the water supply of their suburban neighborhood or into a family swimming pool that all those kids enjoy? This idea, of course, sounds far-fetched, even ridiculous, to the urban ear, but it is exactly what the Tahltan elder James Dennis means when he says, "Our land is our kitchen. When you bring your poison onto our land you are poisoning our kitchen."

Such fairness and balance ought to be the norm, the way we as Canadians take measure of the impacts and potential of these various industrial projects. Unfortunately, we live by quite another code of conduct. This does not imply, however, that we have no voice and no obligations. These projects will go ahead only if we accept 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.

They will go ahead only if we continue to endorse a process that grants mining concessions, often initially for trivial sums, to speculators from distant cities, even as we place no cultural or market value on the land itself. They will go ahead if we maintain that the cost of destroying a natural asset, or its inherent worth if left intact, need not have a metric in the economic calculations that support the industrialization of the wild. They will go ahead if we remain committed to the notion that no private company has to compensate the public for what it does to the commons, the forests, mountains, and rivers, which by definition belong to everyone. That it merely requires bureaucratic permission to proceed.

They will go ahead as long as we continue to embrace a mindset that has no place in a world in which wild lands are becoming increasingly rare and valuable, even as we strive as a species to live in a sustainable manner on a planet we have come to recognize as being resilient but not inviolable.

The people of the Sacred Headwaters, the men and women of Klabona — all those who have rallied against these developments — have a very different way of thinking about the land. For them the Sacred Headwaters is a neighborhood, at once their grocery store and sanctuary, their church and schoolyard, their cemetery and country club. They believe that the people with greatest claim to ownership of the valley are the generations as yet unborn. The Sacred Headwaters will be their nursery.

The 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 the Sacred Headwaters Tribal Heritage Area. In the end what is at stake is the future of one of the most extraordinary regions in all of 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 favor industrial development at any cost. The voices of all Canadians and of all people deserve to be heard. Surely no amount of methane gas, copper, or gold can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that could be the Sacred Headwaters of all Canadians and indeed all citizens of the world.

February 27, 2012

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1 Comment

May 26, 2012
7:29 PM

Where in Vancouver can I buy the book?Thanks Ed

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