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Despoiling the Last Wild River of the West

Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

The last great wild river on the Pacific coast of North America is one most Americans probably have never heard of, which may explain its continued greatness. The human forces that have destroyed the Columbia, the Colorado and the Snake have not yet been brought to bear on the mighty Taku. This may not last much longer, though the Clinton administration could save the situation.

The Taku River rises in the mountains of British Columbia and arcs southwest through forested canyons into southeast Alaska, where it crosses the Tongass National Forest before emptying into the Pacific just south of Juneau. It’s the largest unroaded watershed on the west coast of North America, covering 4.5 million acres. The Taku brings to mind Euclides da Cunha’s famous description of the Amazon: “the last unwritten page of Genesis.” Human impact has not decimated the original biota. In profusion sufficient to ensure their vibrant survival are wolves, mountain goats, caribou, moose and a wide range of birds from peregrine falcons to trumpeter swans. The Taku also harbors the healthiest population of grizzlies in the Northwest. In its waters flourish all five varieties of Pacific salmon, the Chinook, the coho, the pink, the sockeye and the steelhead. At a time when salmon stocks up and down the West Coast are in a state of collapse, the Taku runs remain abundant, for simple reasons. There are no roads, no cows, no dams, no clear-cuts, no mines. In this healthy state, the Taku is a $5.5-million fishery and in terms of salmon, the underpinning of the Alaskan fish industry.

The Taku watershed is not devoid of humans. Since 2000 BC, the Taku River Tlingit have made their home along its banks, developing a culture that was described in admiring terms a century ago by Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology. The Tlingit have never ceded their title to what they call the Taku River Valley. In their language, Taku means “the place where the swans and the geese touch down to land.”

This same place faces a doom from which U.S. diplomacy may be its only chance of rescue. A Vancouver-based mining company called Redfern Resources has been given preliminary approval by the provincial government of British Columbia to develop a vast lead, silver, zinc and gold mine in the heart of the Taku watershed. The mine is scheduled to produce 2,500 tons of ore a day, with a 99-mile-long road being carved from the landscape, starting in the Canadian portion of the watershed. The road would be overture to the destruction of the Taku. Its proposed route requires 69 crossings of salmon streams. It would offer access to logging trucks, to poachers and to other mines. Redfern Resources wants to set the bulldozers to work this summer.

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Furiously opposing such plans are the Taku Tlingit, who have written to the British Columbia government, saying correctly, “Control over the land is control over us. For us the road is a drain on the spirit of the land.”

The mine is a toxic disaster in the making. Wastes from the site would be highly acidic and loaded with heavy metals and other poisons. Even the provincial government, long in the pocket of mining companies, admits that it “could result in a chronic discharge of effluent contaminated with acids, heavy metals, petroleum products and/or toxic reagents.”

Putting it somewhat more graphically, Bob Riley of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently told an Alaskan newspaper that “It’s like a loaded gun.” Riley concludes that there is a high likelihood that the slurry from the mine will eventually leach into the Taku, poisoning the salmon-rich waters. Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles has been vociferous in his denunciation of the mine, which is being pushed by the British Columbia government: “It is extraordinary . . . to place the mine development in the flood plain of a major salmon-producing river.”

But the Clinton administration has got a powerful weapon at hand, in the form of the Boundary Waters Act, signed by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1909. This grandfather of environmental agreements created a Joint International Commission, consisting of three Americans and three Canadians, to resolve disputes on transborder waterways such as the Taku.

The U.S. State Department has been asked by Knowles, the Taku Tlingit (the only North American tribe to have dual citizenship) and several environmental groups to intervene under the terms of the 1909 law. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been talking lately of environmentalism as the great new project of U.S. diplomacy. Now is her chance to demonstrate whether such language is anything more than hot air.


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