Speaking to save the Sacred Headwaters 

National Geographic's Wade Davis at Brew Creek

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National Geographic writer and photographer Wade Davis brought his plea to save the Serengeti of Canada's north to the Brew Creek Centre on Wednesday, May 9.

In the sub-alpine meadows of the Sacred Headwaters region of northwestern British Columbia are the sources of three of the province's greatest rivers, the Skeena, Nass and Stikine. It is home to a rare and remarkable ecosystem with an unbroken chain of wildlife that remains largely undisturbed and allowed to flourish. Thousands of caribou, mountain-ranging sheep and goats are followed by vast populations of grizzly and wolf.

It is home, too, to Davis and his family. The National Geographic's explorer-in-residence, who travels to up to 40 countries per year in his quest for tales for the magazine and his many nonfiction books, first came to the region in the 1970s as a ranger.

Davis is urgently trying to inform Canadians that heavy industry, in the form of mining and petroleum companies, has also found this paradise with its rich mineral and methane deposits. He said that without public pressure the region is in danger of being torn up to suit corporate interests.

He told the story of his own connection to the region, along with the stories of the people and animals. Among the 135 people at the sold-out talk was John Fraser, Canada's Fisheries Minister under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s.

"This is not a story of Tibet or the Amazon... it is the story of my own backyard," Davis began. In terms of scale, he added, "You could put England in the Sacred Headwaters and the English wouldn't be able to find it."

Davis recalled that in just one generation, the passenger pigeon was obliterated; in just seven years the American bison was taken to the brink of extinction. He referred to the losses incurred by nature in the lower 48 states of the U.S. often. Places that seem to be the natural world, like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, receive tens of thousands of visitors per year.

"How often do we think of how these places could have been (Grand Canyon, Yosemite), how they were. British Columbia has this, now," he said.

Davis described the 100-mile-long Grand Canyon of the Stikine, a treacherous white-water area for kayakers, through which fewer than 100 people have ever gone.

It is a region, he said, where distances are measured by the number of boots worn out, and on the roads in terms of the number of axles broken during the journey.

Shell is currently the holder of the rights to hundreds of square kilometres of methane gas beds, which could only be tapped through fracking into the rock with fresh water to release the gas, a dirty and energy-intensive business that would leave behind millions of litres of toxic tailing ponds as its legacy.

After a moratorium — due to expire at the end of 2012 — was declared by Shell on drilling for methane, Davis remains hopeful that the company will actually flip its position and join him in seeking creation of a conservancy in the Sacred Headwaters.

He is less optimistic about Imperial Metal Corporation's Red Chris copper and gold mine on a mountain sacred to the Tahltan. Just days before speaking at Brew Creek, on May 4, the B.C. government approved the 30-year, $444 million project by issuing a permit to Imperial Metal.

The Tahltan people, who are without a treaty in the region, renounced the decision in their traditional territory within an hour of the government's press release going out.

"What does it tell us about our country?" Davis asked the audience.

Alex Jack, an elder who knew Davis for decades, lived with his family in the last three years of his life. Having spent most of his life as a hunter and trapper, Jack filled Davis with stories and when he finally passed away he left Davis a puzzling gift to remember him by, a tool the Tahltan used to scrape out the eyelids of wolves. He realized afterwards that Jack had cleared his eyes in order to see.

Davis and colleagues from National Geographic published a book, The Sacred Headwaters, in an effort to educate Canadians as to what is at stake.

He said the greatest tension of this age is "the clash between those who are comfortable with the changes of the last 50 years and those who are profoundly threatened."

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