In 1879, John Muir traveled into far northern British Columbia to the Stikine River. He was in search of solitude and wilderness and he found both in shocking quantities. You would imagine that Muir, having spent so much time in some of the wildest country in the world, would be relatively hard to impress. But what he saw in the Stikine stunned him – a place of such natural wealth and breathtaking beauty that he described as a Yosemite Valley a hundred miles long.
This area, more broadly known as the Sacred Headwaters because it is the founding region of three of the greatest salmon and steelhead rivers in the world – the Nass, Skeena and Stikine – is today much as it was in Muir’s day. One of those places that is so hard to get to, so isolated, that going there is like traveling back in time, a place where wild caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, moose, and mountain goats roam.
While the Sacred Headwaters has been mostly spared, the quest for fossil fuels knows no barriers. And the region was cursed with major coalbed methane deposits – natural gas accessible by fracking. Which is how the Sacred Headwaters found itself in the sights of one of the world’s largest and most profitable companies: Royal Dutch Shell. Shell’s goal was to turn this virtual Eden into a checkerboard of 6,000 fracking wells, seismic lines, roads and pipelines.
Quietly and without consulting the local communities, the government of British Columbia granted Shell permission to begin drilling test wells for fracking, a highly controversial technique that has never been evaluated for its impact on salmon habitats. With test wells in place, Shell began developing its strategy for extraction. News of Shell’s plundering in the Sacred Headwaters soon traveled downstream to the traditional stewards of the Sacred Headwaters, the Tahltan First Nation.
The Tahltan have called the region home for thousands of years. In 2005 Tahltan community leaders and elders organized a multi-month-long blockade of the single access road to this isolated wilderness, stopping Shell from delivering machinery to its development sites. Fourteen people were arrested during the course of the blockade, igniting a flame of activism, community organizing and resistance that spread far and wide. ForestEthics began organizing international protests at Shell headquarters in the Netherlands and gathering thousands of petition signatures, and further stepped into the fight by negotiating with top Shell and BC government officials while pressure against Shell was accelerating. Alliances that are a model for the future of progressive change were formed between environmentalists, First Nations, local unions, ranchers, hunting and fishing guides and outdoor sports enthusiasts.
Simply put, the people took a stand against one of the largest multi-national oil companies in the world and resolved to fight back against Shell’s plans to annihilate the Sacred Headwaters. And we were successful. After 5 years of incredible campaigning, community organizing, hard-hitting ads, protests and a storm of media coverage, Shell agreed to forfeit its tenures in the Sacred Headwaters and public pressure catalyzed the government of British Columbia to ban all further oil and gas development in the region.
There is more to do – there always is. The Sacred Headwaters deserves even broader protection – and the Tahltan First Nation, without whom none of this would have happened, must be given deference in determining what other industrial threats in this amazing region are eliminated.
But let us not forget the central lesson of the Sacred Headwaters: Huge companies are powerful – but a united people are far more mighty.
Click here to view a timeline, Path to Victory in the Sacred Headwaters.
Todd Paglia is the Executive Director of ForestEthics. ForestEthics is a non-profit organization devoted to public engagement, outreach and environmental advocacy - including political advocacy. They secure large-scale protection of endangered forests and wild places and transform environmentally destructive resource-extraction industries. For more information: www.ForestEthics.org.
Photo by Brian Huntington