Posted In:

Yearend Reflections

Will Patric : Dec 18.2014

The end of 2014 is a good time to reflect on what Rivers Without Borders is trying to do, and why …

As the director of Rivers Without Borders (founded 15 years ago this month!), I focus on the watersheds of northwest British Columbia and southeast Alaska. But recently I attended two conferences outside that realm. One was about the Columbia River basin. The other was about Puget Sound. What struck me most about both gatherings was the extent and diversity of environmental problems being addressed within these two iconic water systems, and the amount of money, energy, and scientific expertise that’s being poured into them to try to restore a vestige of the ecological productivity that’s been squandered by development over the past century. The director of the Puget Sound Partnership made this point with an interesting illustration. As she put it, emphasizing degrees of complexity, “There’s baking a cake. Then there’s putting someone on the moon. And then there’s trying to restore Puget Sound.” As in stopping industrial pollution. Resurrecting estuaries and wetlands. Getting salmon around dams. Addressing pesticide and herbicide runoff from agriculture. Urban growth. Exotic species. Stream channeling. Logging. Mining. Removing heavy metals from water and sediment. Turning reservoirs back into rivers. And on and on with many hundreds of millions of dollars being spent chipping away at these daunting challenges.

In the BC – Alaska transboundary region, we don’t have to spend a dime on habitat restoration. Its watersheds are still amazingly intact and, not coincidentally, world class wild salmon strongholds rich in biodiversity. Close to perfect. All they need is humility to let them be; foresight to keep them as is.

The braided salmon habitat of the Taku river. Photo courtesy of Rivers Without Borders. Click on the image to embiggen.

The braided salmon habitat of the Taku river. Photo courtesy of Rivers Without Borders. Click on the image to embiggen.

That’s why Rivers Without Borders is determined to stop Tulsequah Chief, an extremely controversial mine proposal slated for the Taku, the largest totally intact watershed on the Pacific coast of North America and the transboundary region’s number one salmon system. And why we’re raising awareness of other mining proposals in transboundary watershed headwaters – the KSM mega mine in particular – and encouraging calls for an international conversation about the future of these international rivers.

With the needs of salmon in particular driving concern, the downstream demand for careful consideration and safeguarding of what we have, before we lose it, is growing. Most recently the National Congress of American Indians and several Alaska Native associations passed formal resolutions asking for the convening of an International Joint Commission under the auspices of the Boundary Waters Treaty to address headwaters mining concerns. Seven southeast Alaska communities have now passed formal resolutions for the same thing. This echoes what we’ve been calling for, namely ecosystem-based planning and decision making about these watersheds. This means getting downstream interests heard and registering upstream, across the border, where development is proposed. The international conversation. This, we believe, is the best hope for advancing conservation.

We have a long way to go, but we’ve made some real progress. The future of the Taku looks brighter, thanks to the Taku River Tlingit First Nation’s lawsuit and fishermen standing up to a really bad mine proposal on Alaska’s doorstep just upstream of the Taku’s premier salmon habitat. And there’s a rising tide of voices saying it can’t be business as usual in the BC – Alaska transboundary watersheds. Here we still have a chance to save some spectacularly wild and intact working ecosystems. With humility and foresight.

Best wishes for the new year ahead.