Photo: David Nunuk
Since 2007, The Conservation Alliance has contributed close to $100,000 to the Rivers Without Border's Taku Watershed Conservation Campaign; a campaign to secure a Critical Habitat designation for the Taku River watershed, keeping it wild and fully intact by preventing mining associated development activities.
On March 12, 2012, the Taku River, the wild ecological heart of the British Columbia - Alaska transboundary region, has made the BC Most Endangered Rivers List. Of the ten rivers selected for this dubious distinction by the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC, the Taku placed number 6. Given that a major Land Use Plan embracing all of the Canadian side of the watershed was completed in summer 2011, in large part to safeguard conservation values, it is unfortunate the spectacular, biologically rich Taku is once again on the list.
Here's why ...
The Land Use Plan provides some important protections for the Taku. Until it was finalized, the entire 4.5 million acre/1.8 million hectare watershed - fully intact, virtually pristine and, not coincidentally, the transboundary region's most productive salmon system - was open for development. Now a significant portion of the watershed, including the main stem Taku and its Inklin and Nakina tributaries, is protected. The Taku River Tlingit First Nation in particular deserves credit for bringing about this noteworthy conservation success.
But the plan allows a mining district within the watershed in what is, from an environmental perspective, the worst possible location. The Tulsequah River is a major Taku tributary, joining the main stem just before it flows into Alaska. There is a block of mineral tenures at this juncture. Small scale mining occurred in the Tulsequah Valley into the 1950s. The long abandoned mine site has been bleeding acid into the Tulsequah River ever since. The pollution is not sufficient to cause far reaching impacts, but it's a vivid warning that the sulfide geology of the area, if disturbed by renewed, larger scale mining, will threaten downstream waters. For the Taku, it best salmon habitat, a maze of winding streams and backwaters vital to rearing juvenile salmon, is immediately downstream of the Tulsequah Valley. And virtually all of some two million salmon leaving or returning to the Taku system annually must pass the Tulsequah juncture.
Here is where two mine projects are now proposed by Chieftain Metals. Efforts to raise capital and get the projects permitted are advancing. Initial development work could start soon. Mining at Tulsequah would undermine the conservation gains of the Land Use Plan. It will mean construction of a road through remote Tlingit territory, and industrial barging impacting river habitat. Water pollution problems will be inevitable. Operational failures - a tailings impoundment blow out, for example, by no means unlikely in a remote, seismically active, high precipitation region - could have catastrophic consequences.
The Taku is at a crossroads, as the Endangered Rivers announcement underscores. Mining can be initiated in the watershed, bringing the short term profits of resource extraction. And with infrastructure in place, more development will surely follow. Or the Taku can remain as it is, one of the continent's top salmon strongholds, a wild river sustaining fish, wildlife, and people that depend on them for generations to come.
Chieftain's proposal - the only present threat to the entire Taku watershed - is on shaky grounds. Concern, and outright opposition, is growing on both sides of the border. Strong and concerted pressure can save the Taku, and insure that the conservation promise of the Land Use Plan is achieved. We look forward to a time, soon, when the Taku does not make BC Endangered Rivers List.
To learn more about the Taku River and Rivers Without Borders, please visit: www.riverswithoutborders.org