11" x 10"
throughout colour photographs
Nature / Environmental Conservation & Protection
Co-published with David Suzuki Foundation
The Sacred Headwaters
The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass
Afterword by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
In 1967 my father took eight of my brothers and sisters and me on a white-water trip through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. We camped on the Colorado’s massive sandbars, bathed and swam in its seventy-degree waters, and caught native fish from the abundant schools. It was there that I first fell in love with rivers. Many years after that wonderful trip, my love for rivers translated into a passion for protecting them, when, in 1984, I began working as a volunteer with the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen who mobilized to reclaim the river from its polluters. Working with the fisherman from the association, I discovered that the front line in the battle to save the environment is occupied by ordinary people tackling extraordinary odds to defend their communities—people who share a common belief in their fundamental right to protect themselves and their communities from the threat of pollution and environmental abuse.
Today I know of no better example of grassroots activists confronting extraordinary odds to protect their environment than in northern British Columbia, where, without the help of a single national or international NGO, a remarkable collection of individuals from fishermen and hunters to First Nations peoples and regional elected officials are working to stop a parade of catastrophic industrial projects proposed for the Sacred Headwaters, the birthplace of three of British Columbia’s greatest salmon rivers—the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass. Their actions to save these great rivers are inspiring. In 2005 the Tahltan First Nation orchestrated a blockade in which fifteen were arrested, among them nine elders, including one determined older hunting guide in a wheelchair, Jerry Quock.
A few years later, a courageous young woman, Ali Howard, left her day job as a baker and swam the length of the Skeena River, from source to sea, a distance of some 360 miles, passing through the class-five rapids and the treacherous whirlpools and formidable eddy lines of its lower reaches, to show to all that the river is indeed an artery of life, linking every community that thrives in its drainage. As Ali made her way down the Skeena, children began to call her Salmon Girl, and as she passed the few settlements along the way, native leaders in ceremonial regalia paddled out to greet her in great cedar canoes. Local residents, both native and non-native, lined the shores. Politicians joined her for short stretches in the water, symbolically giving support to her cause even as they came to realize what this heroic young woman had endured in the frigid and daunting waters of the Skeena.
Only last year, the communities, and especially the Tahltan people of Iskut, provided a great deal of support for the team of photographers that traveled the country for eight weeks making the photographs for this book.
What the Tahltan and other First Nations have achieved in their fight for the Sacred Headwaters is an inspiration to communities throughout the world struggling to protect their land and the rivers that run through their lives. That a relatively small number of men and women, young and old, have managed at least for the moment to keep Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s largest oil company and second-biggest corporation, out of the Sacred Headwaters is an extraordinary example of what always inspired my father, ordinary people fighting for what was right. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” It is precisely by such hopes and dreams, such commitment to place and home, that true change actually occurs.
But now the heroic efforts of the Tahltan people are not enough. Their actions, and the importance of their struggle to protect their homeland, call out for our support. In 2008, responding to overwhelming opposition in communities throughout the Northwest, the government of British Columbia announced a two-year moratorium on all CBM exploration in the headwaters. In 2011 this was extended for another two years. Shell’s eight-year tenure, granted in 2004, expires in 2012. In the spring of 2011, Shell reiterated its intentions to continue to push forward its plans that would transform the Sacred Headwaters for all time.
In 1963 a dam was built on the Colorado River that buried forever the beautiful Glen Canyon beneath the waters of a reservoir. This terrible outcome, now universally seen as the tragic consequence of ill-conceived public policy, was allowed to happen simply because too few Americans were aware of the canyon’s existence. With its destruction, we lost an iconic and invaluable part of our heritage. In time, as we came to acknowledge our folly, Glen Canyon famously became “the canyon that nobody knew.” There are few Americans who would not give anything to have it back, pristine as it once was.
We may never be able to restore Glen Canyon to its former glory, but we can ensure that such a fate does not befall other, equally significant wild landscapes. The Sacred Headwaters is in many ways Canada’s Glen Canyon. It is as beautiful, unique, and iconic, and most important of all, it is still here, untouched save for the footsteps of the elders whose struggles are celebrated in this wonderful book. Everyone who has ever lamented the loss of wild lands should rally to this cause and join in what is certainly one of the most important environment struggles of our time.
© 2011 D&M Publishers Inc.
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