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Fracking Deadline Looms for British Columbia's Sacred Headwaters

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Energy developers, environmental groups, First Nations, local businesses and sportsmen are all anxiously watching and waiting as last-minute negotiations continue before the December 18, 2012 expiration of a four-year-long fracking ban for the Klappen Coalbed Methane project in northern British Columbia, Canada.

Controversy has been simmering for years in the Sacred Headwaters region, ancestral home of the Tahltan First Nation and the wellspring of three of the most important salmon-spawning rivers in B.C.: the Skeena, Nass and Stikine. The government moratorium on this Royal Dutch Shell development was issued four years ago, and other energy development proposals such as the Arctos anthracite mine (recently renamed by developer Fortune Energy from the previous "Mount Klappen anthracite metallurgical coal project" to avoid the impression that it will involve the entire area) have been controversial since before 2006. Protests, industrial strikes, road blockades and arrests have occurred throughout the area, including an unprecedented 245-day sit-in at tribal council offices that shook the Tahltan Nation's politics to their core. People of the Iskut Nation, whose lands guard the gateway to the Sacred Headwaters, have also joined in protests.

In addition to the economically and ecologically important salmon and steelhead spawning runs in these rivers, the Sacred Headwaters are important habitat for black and grizzly bears, moose, caribou, mountain goats, wolverines, wolves and more. Opponents to the development fear that communities along these rivers all the way to the ocean could be adversely affected from road and pipeline building, land clearing, wastewater disposal and chemical spills.

Historically the Tahltan Nation has not been opposed to all mining and energy development, according to Smithers, B.C. journalist Amanda Follett in her photo essay about development in the Sacred Headwaters, produced with Vancouver, B.C. photographer Paul Colangelo. "They have welcomed other developments and the jobs they provide, as long as the environmental risks don't outweigh the benefits," Follett wrote.

In a recent press release, Tahltan Central Council President Annita McPhee stated "We want to make it clear that the Klappan area is one of the most sacred and important areas for the Tahltan people. It is a place of tremendous cultural, spiritual, and social importance. It is not an area that the Tahltan people have expressed interest to see developed." McPhee continued, "We are open to exploring all kinds of economic development - and our track record shows that. At the same time, there are values, interests, and places that must be preserved."

Neither the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Resources nor the Tahltan Central Council will comment on the nature of the negotiations while they are in progress, but McPhee did tell The Tyee online news service that she is determined to protect the Sacred Headwaters. "We're not going to stop until there is permanent protection in the Klappan."

My personal interest in the Sacred Headwaters region began in 2009 with one fish--a monstrous steelhead (an anadromous species of trout) from a tributary of the Nass River which floored me with its wild beauty and ferocity before I released it back into the river to complete its journey up the river to spawn. I've been extremely fortunate to have the privilege of returning each year since to enjoy the wildlife, and the peace and quiet. The haunting howls of wolf packs and the strange calls of tundra swans returning south fill the air, the black and grizzly bears are genuinely surprised to see humans, and returning salmon fill the river bed like a red carpet, brushing against my waders as I cast. No jet airliners roar across the sky, and the rare float plane or helicopter is welcome, as it's usually bearing supplies for our camps or more guests wanting to try their luck at catch-and-release fishing in a remote, pristine wilderness that has never been logged, mined or drilled. And in the future when gas and minerals become too expensive to extract economically, local jobs that were produced by the development will wither away, leaving a scarred and contaminated landscape.

If you'd like to help protect the Sacred Headwaters, it's not too late. You can make your opinion known by emailing your opinion to B.C. Premier Christy Clark, signing an online petition directed to Shell Canada Chairman Marvin Odum, or supporting a variety of organizations working to extend the fracking moratorium. And if you're a tourist or potential tourist, be sure to make it known how much money you'll spend in the area, and how fracking and mining will affect your future tourism plans.