Last summer, John Grace, one of the world's elite kayakers, traveled more than 3,000 miles from his North Carolina home into the wild northwest corner of British Columbia, to explore the Iskut River. It's the biggest tributary of the Stikine River, which flows all the way to the Alaska panhandle coast, and together they're the kind of big, untamed salmon-rich river system no longer found in the American West. On a sunny August day, deep in the backcountry, Grace and a few friends paddled toward the jaws of Iskut Canyon, hoping to reach a four-mile stretch of surging whitewater that no human had conquered before.
As they neared the canyon, the haunting silence of the rainforest closed in around them. Suddenly they found themselves in the midst of a vast construction camp. Workers were boring a tunnel into the mountain, part of a hydropower project to harness the great force of the river.
The work crew, employees of a private company, were equally surprised to see them, and the mood turned ugly: "They were complete cowboys," Grace recalled later. "They pulled up in a truck and told us to leave our stuff and come with them. They threatened to arrest us for trespassing."
The work crew detained the kayakers overnight, and then drove them about 30 miles to the nearest highway the next day. The legality of the crew's actions remains dubious. But the encounter clearly revealed the brash new Wild West of British Columbia -- millions of acres of mostly undeveloped forests, mountains and rivers bordering the Alaskan panhandle, where only a few thousand people now live.
The $720 million Forrest Kerr hydropower project -- a "run-of-the-river" design, which diverts the flow through pipes and turbines and then returns it to the river downstream -- is merely the first in a series of large natural resource developments in northwestern B.C. At least a dozen major new mines and many new hydropower projects are proposed. Some developments are already advancing through the Canadian regulatory process, and a crucial electrical transmission line is being extended nearly 300 miles to serve them.
A separate scheme would install a pipeline hundreds of miles across northern B.C. to convey bitumen from the huge Alberta tar sands mines to an expanded port in Kitimat, B.C., currently home to about 8,500 residents. If it gets built, tanker ships would navigate the treacherous, ecologically fragile coastal waters to haul Canadian crude to hungry Asian markets.
Many Canadian politicians have lined up to back this rush to develop natural resources. The developments would be mostly on "crown lands" managed by the provincial government -- Canada's equivalent of state land in the U.S. The provincial government, a mining cheerleader, says the developments will create 10,000 jobs and spur $15 billion in new investments. Meanwhile, the Canadian federal government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has unleashed an unprecedented assault on the country's environmental laws to expedite approval of these kinds of projects. Both governments are even subsidizing the new power line, using hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
There are some critics, mostly a few environmentalists and tribes in both B.C. and the U.S., who fear that the developments will degrade the region's wild character, harming ecosystems that support not only the salmon runs that Alaska and B.C. share, but also thousands of grizzly bears, wolves, moose and other large mammals. But so far, they're outgunned by the politicians and industry.
"We're at this transition point right now," warns J. Michael Fay, a biologist who lives part-time in a remote cabin near the Alaska-B.C. border. With backing from the National Geographic Society, Fay plans to hike across northern B.C. to the Alaska coast beginning next summer to document the area's biodiversity and some of the recent impacts upon it. In his view, the new mines, hydropower projects and power line will cause "a complete transformation of the landscape from wilderness to an industrial center. My hope is that public opinion develops to say this is all way too much, way too fast."
Different nations have developed specialties over the years: the Finns build ships, the Swiss run banks, and Canadians are world experts in separating minerals from mountains of ore. Greater Vancouver alone -- the biggest city in B.C. -- is home to at least 1,200 mining exploration companies, and the industry, going for gold, silver, copper and other metals as well as coal, is a major economic engine for the province, earning billions of dollars and paying almost $1 billion in taxes a year.