A different borderland blues

by Ray Ring

(This editor's note accompanies a story exposing a British Columbia mining rush that threatens salmon rivers flowing through Southeast Alaska.)

When I first ventured into environmental journalism in the early 1980s, one of the hottest Western controversies was coming down in the temperate rainforests of the Alaska panhandle, bordering Canada's westernmost province, British Columbia. Two pulp-mill companies negotiated highly questionable 50-year contracts with the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, creating jobs in rural communities by clear-cutting magnificent old-growth cedar, western hemlock and Sitka spruce. They bought the big trees so cheaply, they shredded them to make toilet paper.

The Tongass logging was a last hurrah for traditional national forest management that favored one industry above all other ecosystem values. Under pressure from various factors, including environmentalists and small logging companies that complained about the near monopoly, those pulp mills shut down in the 1990s. Since then, the Tongass harvest has plunged 90 percent; stakeholders are attempting restoration forestry and deciding how to manage the remaining roadless areas.

The Alaska panhandle's economy and culture now rely largely on the spectacular salmon runs in the coastal rivers, which provide food as well as jobs in fishing and ecotourism. But as our cover story reports, there's a serious new threat to this slice of the West: a mining rush in the remote mountains of northwestern British Columbia, which form the headwaters of those coastal rivers.

HCN has frequently chronicled the risks of hardrock mining. Mines provide essential minerals and jobs, but they also often tear up the landscape and pollute streams with acid and heavy metals. The new B.C. mining rush threatens one of the wildest regions left on the planet. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is promoting it by loosening many of his country's environmental laws -- an echo of what his fellow conservative, U.S. President George W. Bush, attempted to do in this country during the 2000s.

And Canada's environmental laws weren't that strong to begin with, because Canada has fewer people per acre, less development pressure overall, and an economy that's more dependent on natural resources. As Canadian environmentalist Mike Sawyer said in our last cover story on our Northern neighbor, in 2001: "We like to think of ourselves as being much more polite and civil than you Americans. We're a culture that is less distrustful of large corporations."

Lining up against this mining rush, environmentalists, tribes and commercial fishermen in both countries are fighting the provincial government's pro-mining policies as well as Harper's cheerleading. Yet the emerging conflict hasn't received much publicity yet, mostly because of the extreme remoteness of the mine sites. The writer of our main story, B.C.-based Christopher Pollon, traveled by boat and helicopter while doing his research. Like our coverage of conservation struggles in Mexico earlier this year, our exploration of Canada's industrializing backcountry recognizes that ecosystems and environmental issues sprawl across manmade borders.

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