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This is not a story of Tibet and it's not a story of the Amazon. I won't be taking you to the high Arctic, the life of the Inuit, or to the searing sands of the Sahara. This is actually a story of my own backyard.
It's a land known to the Tahltan people and all the First Nations of British Columbia as the Sacred Headwaters, the source of the three great salmon rivers of home, the Skeena, the Stikine and the Nass. It's a valley where, in a long day, perhaps, too, you can follow the tracks of grizzly and wolf and drink from the very sources of water that gave rise and cradled the great civilizations of the Northwest Coast. It's such a beautiful place. It's the most stunningly wild place I've ever been. It's the sort of place that we, as Canadians, could throw England, and they'd never find it. John Muir, in 1879, went up just the lower third of the Stikine, and he was so enraptured he called it a Yosemite 150 miles long. He came back to California and named his dog after that river of enchantment. In the Lower 48, the farthest you can get away from a maintained road is 20 miles. In the Northwest Quadrant of British Columbia, an area of land the size of Oregon, there's one road, a narrow ribbon of asphalt that slips up the side of the Coast Mountains to the Yukon. I followed that road in the early 1970s, soon after it was built, to take a job as the first park ranger in Spatsizi wilderness. My job description was deliciously vague: wilderness assessment and public relations. In two four-month seasons I saw not a dozen people. There was no one to relate publicly to.
But in the course of these wanderings, I came upon an old shaman's grave that led to an encounter with a remarkable man: Alex Jack, an Gitxsan elder and chief who had lived as a trapper and a hunter in that country for all of his life. And over the course of 30 years, I recorded traditional tales from Alex, mostly mythological accounts of Wy-ghet, the trickster transformer of Gitxsan lore who, in his folly, taught the people how to live on the land. And just before Alex died at the age of 96, he gave me a gift. It was a tool carved from caribou bone by his grandfather in 1910, and it turned out to be a specialized implement used by a trapper to skin out the eyelids of wolves. It was only when Alex passed away that I realized that the eyelids, in some sense, were my own, and having done so much to allow me to learn to see, Alex in his own way was saying goodbye.
Well, isolation has been the great saving grace of this remarkable place, but today isolation could be its doom. You've heard so much about the developments of the tar sands, the controversy about the Keystone and the Enbridge pipelines, but these are just elements of a tsunami of industrial development that is sweeping across all of the wild country of northern Canada. In Tahltan territory alone, there are 41 major industrial proposals, some with great promise, some of great concern. On Todagin Mountain, revered by the Tahltan people as a wildlife sanctuary in the sky, home to the largest population of stone sheep on the planet, Imperial Metals -- but the 75th-biggest mining company in all of Canada -- has secured permits to establish an open-pit copper and gold mine which will process 30,000 tons of rock a day for 30 years, generating hundreds of millions of tons of toxic waste that, by the project's design, will simply be dumped into the lakes of the Sacred Headwaters. At the Headwaters itself, Shell Canada has plans to extract methane gas from coal seams that underly a million acres, fracking the coal with hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, establishing perhaps as many as 6,000 wellheads, and eventually a network of roads and pipelines and flaring wellheads, all to generate methane gas that most likely will go east to fuel the expansion of the tar sands.
For over a decade, the Tahltan people, both clans, Wolf and Crow, have resisted this assault on their homeland. Men, women and children of all ages, elders in wheelchairs, have blockaded the only road access to the interior. For them, the Headwaters is a kitchen. It's a sanctuary. It's a burial ground of their ancestors. And those who really own it are the generations as yet unborn.
The Tahltan have been able, with the support of all Canadians who live downstream, all local politicians, to resist this assault on their homeland, but now everything hangs in the balance. Decisions that will be made this year will literally determine the fate of this country. The Tahltan have called for the creation of a tribal heritage reserve which will set aside the largest protected area in British Columbia. Our goal is not only to help them do that but to encourage our friends, the good people at Shell, not only to withdraw from the Sacred Headwaters, but to move forward with us and join us as we do the remarkable, the extraordinary: set aside a protected area that will be for all time not simply the Sacred Headwaters of the Tahltan people but the sacred headwaters of all people in the world.
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Ethnographer Wade Davis explores hidden places in the wider world -- but in this powerful short talk he urges us to save a paradise in his backyard, Northern Canada. The Sacred Headwaters, remote and pristine, are under threat because they hide rich tar sands. With stunning photos, Davis asks a tough question: How can we balance society's need for fuels with the urge to protect such glorious wilderness?
A National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” Full bio »