About the Region
Imagine a place with where all five species of wild Pacific salmon hatch, mature, and then return to spawn in fresh, unfettered waterways, a place so vast and diverse large mammals like wolves, grizzly and black bears, wolverine, and lynx live out their natural predator-prey cycles without roads to fragment their habitat, a place with globally significant populations of moose, mountain goats, sheep, and woodland caribou, as well as migratory birds, including the Trumpeter swan.
Then imagine, in this age of climate threats, declining wild salmon populations, and loss of unfragmented habitat, gambling the wealth of this watershed away for the small quantity of mineral resources buried on the river’s edge.
The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) and the government of British Columbia completed the Atlin Taku Land Use Plan in July 2011. This management plan covers the entire Canadian side of the transboundary Taku watershed. The agreement establishes a system of decision making for land use management, and sets aside a large part of the region for conservation.
The Land Use Plan is a notable conservation achievement. But Rivers Without Borders is concerned that it leaves the Tulsequah Valley open to mining development. The Tulsequah Valley is just up river from the confluence of the Tulsequah and Taku rivers, and right above the Taku’s best salmon habitat, a maze of winding streams and backwaters vital to rearing salmon. Virtually all of some two million salmon leaving or returning to the Taku yearly must pass Tulsequah. The Taku river is Southeast Alaska’s most important salmon producer.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, there were three small mine sites on the Tulsequah tributary of the Taku River: Polaris Taku (now called New Polaris and owned by Canarc Resource Corp.), Tulsequah Chief, and Big Bull. These sites were all accessed by barge up the Taku River. In recent years, all three sites have been promoted for reopening.
All three mine sites are within a couple of kilometers of each other and pose similar threats. The key concerns include: impacts from access by road or barge, toxic acid mine drainage contaminating the river and sensitive surrounding areas, and the certainty that any one project would pave the way for further industrial development. The mine sites are all located just a few kilometers upstream from the richest salmon rearing habitat in the entire watershed.
The current owner of the Tulsequah Chief and Big Bull mines, Chieftain Metals, announced its intention in December 2010 to reopen these mines. Chieftain Metals is raising money, obtaining permits, and negotiating for road access to the mine sites with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
Chieftain’s proposed road access route for the Tulsequah Chief and Big Bull mines will construct a 122 km/75 mile road into the heart of the watershed. This road would lead to additional mining in a region that is already heavily staked.
Chieftain also intends to barge equipment up the Taku River from Alaska until road access can be obtained, and may continue barging throughout the life of the mines. Barging began in June 2011 and could have ecological impacts, particularly on migrating salmon and their habitat.
The lower Taku is shallow, ever changing, and notoriously difficult to navigate. Year round barging, and proposed dredging to facilitate it, would tear up fish habitat, destroy ice cover essential to rearing salmon, and erode river banks. Like the road, barging would also enhance the potential for developing other projects.
SAFEGUARDING WILD SALMON HABITAT
Southeast Alaska’s commercial and sport fishermen, businesses, scientists, the Douglas Indian Association, and others support proactive Alaskan measures to protect the Taku, especially as Chieftain’s activities have ramped up. Juneau’s bipartisan legislative delegation has likewise been supportive, and has created a Taku River Citizen’s Task Force. The Task Force was established in September 2011. It has provided an unprecedented public forum to consider the Taku’s importance to Southeast Alaska, assess threats to salmon habitat, and explore ways to insure the long term productivity of the watershed.
Alaska agencies have participated in British Columbia and Canadian permitting processes. Most of these review processes have focused on individual British Columbia development projects in isolation. The major issue of cumulative effects of numerous projects across the transboundary region from the Taku in the north to the Iskut-Stikine and the Unuk in the south has largely been unaddressed. The Boundary Waters Treaty provide a mechanism to address such issues. Signed in 1909, it provides principles for Canada and the United States to follow in using the waters they share. The Treaty states that waters shall not be polluted on either side of the boundary to the injury of health or property on the other side. The Treaty established the International Joint Commission to help fulfill the Treaty’s purpose of preventing disputes as well as resolving them. It provides a stronger mechanism to ensure that development in British Columbia does not harm Alaskan fisheries.