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Beyond the Wild: Saving the Sacred Headwaters

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Just weeks before "Promised Land" hit theatres — a film starring Matt Damon that delves into the social, environmental and political maelstrom around hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") — an eight-year campaign to prevent methane gas exploration across a million acres within the headwaters of the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass Rivers of British Columbia came to a close.

On Dec.18, 2012, Shell Canada relinquished its tenure to explore for natural gas in the Sacred Headwaters and announced that it will immediately withdraw from the region. The hard-fought tripartite agreement between the B.C. government, the Tahltan Central Council and Shell has come at a time when leasing private land for natural gas is at an all-time high.

I was a wide-eyed 16 year old when I first took a job with my county conservation district in Northeastern Pennsylvania. They elected me to help lead the restoration of Grassy Island Creek, a 5.4 square mile area that was laid to waste from decades of coal mining.

Mountains of rubble rose high above surrounding treetops, openings to old mine shafts left gaping holes in the rocky landscape, acid mine drainage — noticeable by the lack of fish in a once Class A trout steam — coursed through the surrounding riparian areas. When most of my friends might have been making their regular rounds at the Viewmont Mall, I was taking a pick to an impossible landscape of rock-hard culm.

Just as it's easy to understand not to put your hand over boiling water after you get burned, it's simple to figure out what not to do with the land you live on once the damage has been done. This, of course, is a lesson that is unfortunately not heeded and the thousands of boreholes that have taken up residency in my hometown are less caused by short-term amnesia than by the difficult economic choices our communities have to make.

In the waning hours of the summer of 2010, I was talking with my dear friend and anthropologist Wade Davis. A native of British Columbia and part-time resident in the area that is referred to as the Sacred Headwaters, Wade shared a story of the encroaching mines and boreholes within the surrounding watersheds of the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass.

The scale of what he described was unfathomable — and the understanding that I had with my own hometown experience was enough to imagine what was at stake. He invited me to travel to see him — and with Above Live and my friend, cinematographer Clayton Haskell — we made the long trek north.

It is hard to express the beauty of this great expanse of wilderness. Situated in some of the most magnificent mountains and valleys on the alpine-arctic border, the Sacred Headwaters has truly earned its name.

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Saving the Sacred Headwaters
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For the time that I was there, the fog lay low to the ground, which enshrouded the land with an ethereal splendor. Very few roads were visible on the mountainous plateaus. The only trails were those left by grizzly, dear and black bear.

As we ambled up Todagin Mountain, Wade snapped twigs every 200 feet or so. "You would be surprised how different the mountain looks on the way down," he cautioned. It was, I might say, very insightful advice. By the time our crew was ready to turn back after finding over two dozen morels on the top of the highest plateau, the perspective of the entire landscape had changed. It's as if one turn of the kaleidoscope yielded a completely different landscape.

The native Tahltan people, however, who call the Sacred Headwaters home, do not get lost so easily. For centuries they have hunted and lived on the land, celebrating the spirit of its bounty and beauty. It is this great physical and spiritual connection to their home that has given them the vigor to voice their concerns on the mineral and methane gas exploration that, quite honestly, dwarfs the issues happening in my own hometown.

The foresight of the Tahltan people has yielded the protection of more than a million acres, especially since British Columbia has released that it will not issue future petroleum and natural gas tenure in the area. Still, their journey isn't complete.

Fortune Minerals, as Wade writes in his book, The Sacred Headwaters, still owns the subsurface rights to some 40,000 acres. Their goal of producing between 1.5 and three million tons of coal a year would yield a cacophony of machinery and create visible excavations that will create the same damage that I saw as a young girl in Pennsylvania... only on a far larger scale.
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The Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, the primary group spearheading initiatives behind saving the Sacred Headwaters, is now focusing their attention on Fortune Minerals to prevent the exploration of Klappan Mountain.

If you would like to learn more about Saving the Sacred Headwaters, watch our film "Beyond the Wild" and help contribute here.

** Photos used in conjunction with this article cannot be reprinted or copied without sole permission of the photographer. **