The Sacred Headwaters: Goliath Defeated by 1,000 Davids

Reader Contribution by Todd Paglia
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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