A mining rush in Canada’s backcountry threatens Alaska salmon

  • Sunlight peeks through the clouds above Todagin Creek in the Skeena Mountains, British Columbia, Canada, where a number of new mines threaten the pristine watershed.

    © Carr Clifton, ILCP
  • A cow moose crosses Eddontenajon Lake in the Sacred Headwaters of British Columbia.

    Claudio Contreras, ILCP
  • Acid mine drainage from an adit at the 1950s-era Tulsequah Chief Mine -- which the owners hope to reopen -- flows directly into the Tulsequah River, then on into the Taku and Alaska.

    Chris Miller
  • The Forrest Kerr hydro project, the first of three run-of-the-river projects slated for Tahltan Nation traditional territory along the Iskut River.

    Courtesy Michael Fay, Unuk River Post
  • A spawned-out chinook salmon a half-mile from the headwaters of the Skeena River, in the Sacred Headwaters area of British Columbia.

    Claudio Contreras, ILCP
  • A Wet'suwet'en man fishes for salmon on a tributary to the Skeena River near Moricetown, British Columbia.

    Claudio Contreras, ILCP

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.

Dale Becker
Dale Becker Subscriber
Jan 02, 2013 01:23 PM
Given the seeming public attitude, both here in the U. S. and Canada, regarding money over everything and our past experiences with not realizing how well we can screw up our environment just for the bucks, why would we expect our Canadian neighbors not to follow the path of our mistakes?
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Jan 02, 2013 04:45 PM
So Canada sells its soul, a few companies make huge profits, and the environment is devastated forever. This is a sad and pathetic story and Canadians should be ashamed letting this happen. Someone should fly Steven Harper over Butte, Montana to see what he is allowing be done to the pristine landscape of British Columbia. Men like Harper and his government make me sick to my stomach.
John W Stephens
John W Stephens Subscriber
Jan 02, 2013 07:25 PM
"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," and this looks like gone to me.
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler Subscriber
Jan 02, 2013 07:42 PM
Showing the Butte pit to PM Harper would be like showing dead Iraqi children to President Bush the Second--no change.

The only apparent difference between outright fascism and Canadian style corporatism is the lack of need for violence to enforce the pillaging and corporate control of government decisions (well, not much anyway). The U.S. is not much better; why should we expect any different in Canada? Remember, the three largest industrial country GHG emitters per capita are all former Anglo colonies (Australia, Canada, U.S., in that order).
Guy Archibald
Guy Archibald
Jan 03, 2013 11:04 AM
Where is the leadership from Alaska?
Val Rapp
Val Rapp Subscriber
Jan 13, 2013 06:00 PM
Thanks for bringing attention to Canada's plans. I did not know about these threats to some beautiful, wild southeast Alaska rivers. Interesting that treaty rights of indigenous peoples may be the only legal avenue to possibly prevent some of these projects, although even this avenue sounds like a long shot.
sue Sita
sue Sita Subscriber
Jun 06, 2013 10:23 PM
 Company president Jay Layman could care less. He will make his millions...and be dead before the damn collapses....I hope he comes back as fish.