Not Here, Not Now, Not Ever. Wade Davis and the Fight to Save the Sacred Salmon Rivers

 Story by Mark Hume

Photographs from the book The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass, © 2011 by Wade Davis. The book is published by Greystone Books, an imprint of D&M Publishers in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundations. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. Photographs by Clifton Carr.

Wade Davis, author, film maker, and a professional speaker in constant demand, grew up in British Columbia, where he worked as a logger and park ranger before going to Harvard to get a Ph.D in ethno botany.

His first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, became and international best seller and was later released as a not-so-great motion picture by Universal.

Iskut River - Photography by Carr Clifton

He has the best job title in the world – Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society – and among his work skills he counts the ability to steer a raft through whitewater.

One of his two recently published books, The Sacred Headwaters – The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass, is a stunning tribute to some of the greatest salmon rivers on the planet.

All three rivers have headwaters in a relatively small region in northwest B.C., where Mr. Davis worked in wilderness parks before going off to become a widely praised author, based in Washington, D.C.

He still has a cabin in the area, near the little village of Iskut, and is there for six to eight weeks a year. Talking to him you get the sense he’d like to be there a lot more.

Kinaskan Lake & Oxbows of the Iskut River - Photography by Carr Clifton

Mr. Davis has been spending an increasing amount of his time in a fight to save the three rivers, convinced that if he doesn’t stop the mining and shale gas developments that are proposed for the area, Canada, and the world, will lose a region that is comparable to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and the Serengeti.

What surprises him the most is that the resource projects are moving ahead with little resistance, because Canadians are largely unaware of just how magnificent the area is.

“I find it outrageous that these major decisions are being made without Canadians even knowing what’s at stake,” he said during a conversation on a recent visit to Vancouver.

“Take Imperial Metals on Todagin Mountain,” he said, referring to the Red Chris copper-gold mine, which proposes to blast  30,000 tons of rock out each day of operation. “ I mean here’s a mountain that is home to a major, charismatic ungulate species, Stone sheep, the largest population in the world – it’s like a wildlife sanctuary in the sky – and yet Canada’s 75th biggest mining company sailed through the environmental assessment process even though their very project design called for the dismantling of a mountain and the burying of an alpine lake with tailings.

“I mean what would it take to fail an environmental assessment process?” he asks.

“I’m in no way anti-development, it’s just that this particular mine sits at the epicentre of the whole Stikine River drainage. It literally soars over the nine lakes at the headwaters of the Iskut. And it’s exactly in that place that this world class area could conceivably, within a generation, be developed into another Jasper, Banff or Yosemite,” said Mr. Davis.

“I mean we have 4,000 copper mines in the world and there are some places to put them, and some places not to put them. To put one on top of Todagin is like drilling for oil in the Sistine Chapel.”

Speaking at a recent TED lecture in California, Mr. Davis was talking about Shell’s plans to drill for shale gas in the Sacred Headwaters, when he noticed the president of the giant oil company in the audience. He said he made a point of seeking him out and talking to him about the company’s plans for shale gas development and hopes to follow up with a visit to corporate headquarters.

“Maybe I’m naive,” he says, “but I think he really cares.”

Let’s hope so. Shell is currently honouring a moratorium on coal bed methane mining in the region, but that is due to expire in December 2012.

Mr. Davis said he hopes to convince Shell to make the moratorium permanent, knowing that if he fails the area will soon be cut up by an ever expanding network of roads and one of the world’s last great wilderness areas will be indelibly marked by resource development.

“And I think it’s going to be like the domino effect,” said Mr. Davis. “Once you industrialize an area [with one mine], what’s the argument for not putting in another development?” he says.

Scree Slope, The Spectrum Range, Mount Edziza Provincial Park - Photography by Carr Clifton

“My thought is not mines or no mines, but how many mines and in what place? At what concentration and to whose benefit?”

His answer to that series of questions is implied. No mines in the Sacred Headwaters, because the relatively short term benefits will not outweigh what is lost, to the people who have lived there for thousands of years, and to the people who have not yet had a chance to even visit this remarkable region.

Mr. Davis is an eloquent speaker and one of Canada’s best writers. But the real power of his latest book, The Sacred Headwaters, comes from the stunning photographs.

Take a look at it and you won’t for a moment question whether he is right in arguing the area should be saved for all time.

These three wild salmon rivers run through a stunning, wilderness landscape that should be managed with all the care society can muster. If we can’t get this right, there’s no hope.

 

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