The Tlingit people of the Pacific coast called it Stikine - the Great River. For thousands of generations, they have travelled its lower reaches, upstream through a range of steep, glacier-draped peaks. TheTahltan people of the Interior called its upper reaches Spatsizi - Land of the Red Goat.
 A high, mountain-rimmed plateau is gently drained by long, broad valleys that merge into a common current along its northern flank. Then, in its midsection, the Great River cuts a deep narrow canyon through a broad band of layered volcanic rock with such force that upstream travel is denied to all. The salmon of the Stikine are thus restricted to the lower third of the watershed. The Tlingits and Tahltans would regularly meet at one of the uppermost salmon spawning streams, near the foot of the Grand Canyon.

When Robert Campbell, of the Hudson's Bay Company, arrived at the 1838 trading rendezvous and salmon feast on the banks of the Stikine, he effectively completed the last link of a 3,000+miles trade route connecting Atlantic and Pacific waters via portions of the Hudson's Bay and Arctic drainages. Complete with myriad and sometimes gruelling portages, this transcontinental canoe route is one of the first trans-Canada highways, one of our oldest lines of communication. In a country formed by boundaries of the fur trade, Stikine remains part of our heritage no less than the rivers of Mackenzie and Fraser.

Shortly behind the trappers and traders came the prospectors and surveyors, the missionaries and the mapmakers. In the span of barely one generation, the sails and paddles of the Tlingit were replaced by steam-driven wheels and then again by diesel-driven propellers. Their Great River became the path to the Interior for the Stikine, Cassiar, and Klondike gold rushes of the last century, as well as a military route for men and equipment to build part of the Northwest Staging Route during World War II. Spatsizi and Stikine have long been meccas for big game trophy hunters. The speculators and developers have only recently begun spilling over the southern divide.

The Stewart-Cassiar Highway brought the first of two bridges over the river in the early 1970s. The second dame with an untracked rail grade connecting Dease Lake with Prince George. By 1980, BC Hydro was actively engaged in groundwork for two very large dams in the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. These were part of a mega-project that included three more dams for the Stikine's major tributary - the Iskut River. Local concern, with help from the Sierra Club of Western Canada, was taken to Vancouver, where, in 1981, Friends of the Stikine came into being -- dedicated to "preservation of the Stikine River in its natural state."

Photo: BC Hydro - Site 'Z' hydro-electric dam camp

Along with other conservation-minded groups and individuals, Friends of the Stikine Society has been advocating recognition and protection of the Stikine River main stem as part of a"management" strategy to preserve the integrity and natural balance of the watershed. Also recommended is a (Headwaters) National Park (Reserve) on the southeastern divide, abutting Spatsizi and Tatlatui Provincial Parks. In cooperation with First Nations, such a reserve would provide a large contiguous area for wildlife while protecting the sensitive headwaters of the Spatsizi, Klappan, Nass, Skeena, and other rivers. This high plateau country of Natural Region #7, is so far unrepresented in Canada's National Park System.

Although Mt. Edziza and Spatsizi Provincial Parks contain large areas of the watershed at higher elevations, the Stikine River and all of its tributary valley bottoms remain vulnerable. A coal deposit on the unprotected Spatsizi River headwaters threatens everything below. For over five years, Cominco operated an unpermitted 100,000-pound hovercraft to service its mine at Snippaker Creek,adjacent to the Iskut River. This machine literally laid waste to the in-stream fish habitat and riparian zones of the lower Iskut and Stikine rivers. All the eagle nest trees, including some with chicks in them, and scores of other trees have been eroded into the lower Iskut along with thousands of cubic metres of riverbank, which continues to be carried downstream as bedload. (The action of this hovercraft on the lower Stikine caused it to become shallower and wider, cutting away its banks at an unprecedented rate. The lower Iskut was being transformed from a fertile, braided, aggrading stream to a sterile, laminar flow ditch.

For years, DFO and Cominco "jointly studied the potential loss" of fish and fish habitat, but continued to ignore the evidence presented to them at the expense of concerned citizens, most particularly commercial fisherman Bill Sampson. Finally, in May 1996, with the financial assistance of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund, administered by West Coast Environmental Law Association in Vancouver, Friends of the Stikine hired fisheries expert Dr. Gordon Hartman. Dr. Hartman went up to the Iskut, spent some time there with Friends of the Stikine directors David Ellis of Petersburg Alaska and Bill Sampson of Telegraph Creek BC, and made field observations during times the hovercraft operated. 's report found extensive and conclusive evidence of fish and fish habitat destruction. Two working days after his report was presented to the federal prosecutor in our legal action, the new mine owners, Prime Resources, removed the hovercraft from operation. This was on July 23. Sadly, however, the worst of the damage had already occurred. The worst of the damage has already occurred: the seal rookery is no more, eagle and beaver habitat have been drastically altered, the effect on salmon rearing and spawning habitat in the turbid Iskut remains unclear...for now. What is known is that mid-river canyons restrict five species of salmon, steelhead, and others to that small portion of the watershed characterised by short, steep, glacier-fed tributaries. As a result, an estimated 50 percent of these fish are main channel spawners -- dependent on sloughs and back eddies of the two main streams. Somewhere between one-third and one-half of all these fish require the in-stream and riparian habitat of the Iskut River for their critical life processes of spawning, rearing, and migrationuse the Iskut River to spawn, rear, and migrate.

Having killed the Columbia, and while spending millions and millions per year to try and salvage the Fraser, it boggles the mind to think that, at no cost, we would not preserve these five wild salmon stocks still thriving in delicate balance within their glacial environment. Stikine has long been recognised as a small but healthy contributor to the inter-tidal mixing zone upon which most life on Earth directly depends.

At the river's mouth, the US Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area protects very important migratory bird habitat and all of the watershed in Alaska. Upstream, British Columbia commitment is slow in coming. A provincial multi-agency management advisory committee attempts to zone off the river banks while ignoring the 100,000-pound hovercraft tearing up and down the middle of its mandate.Current proposals for the Iskut suggest large open pit extraction techniques and cyanide processing of highly acidic orebodies. A hydroelectric installation on the Iskut, transmission lines, and extensive road building are part of a package that includes diversion of the Iskut and several tributary streams and the spectre of acid mine drainage. Although BC Hydro's export-oriented, five-dam mega-project was back-burnered, no one has turned off the stove and the flooding reserves remain in place (as far as anyone can tell).

Photo: Mountain Goat in the Grand Canyon of the Stikine

The Grand Canyon and the upper Stikine mainstem are included in a BC Parks-managed recreation area that could possibly bring about protection, eventually, if no one else makes development demands. However, a new proposal to build an access road to the Tuya River for an inadequately studied terminal fishery is evidence of that government agency's inability to afford protection to wildlife habitat in the recreation area.

Photo: Mt. Klappan Coal Project

Mine development proposals on the Spatsizi and elsewhere in the upper watershed continue to seek infrastructure improvement at public expense under the guise of job creation. The recent four-fold increase in the Cassiar Forest District's annual allowable cut represents a major claim on the Stikine watershed by the forest industry; over 60 percent of the timber will come from the Iskut-Boundary "supply block," the most ecologically productive portion of the district. Here, giant Sitka spruce, wintering trumpeter swans, marbled murrelets, and grizzly bears depend on the same ecosystems that enrich the salmon habitats. The forest industry can barely wait for the roads to be built, while rumours of tracks on the rail grade float by like summer storms over Mt. Klappan.

Today, the Stikine River is recognised as the 400-mile bottom line of a 20,000 square mile watershed (about the size and shape of Switzerland) that remains in a nearly pristine state. The watershed continues to support a broad spectrum of wildlife with intact predator-prey relationships in a wide variety of biogeoclimatic zones, or habitats. Such healthy complex ecosystems have already become rare in today's industrialised society. It is time to act!

Friends of the Stikine can no longer, in good conscience, endure further hovercraft-induced damage on the lower Iskut-Stikine. Our evidence demonstrates unquestionable deterioration of streambank ecology and riparian habitats. You don't have to be a rocket scientist, or even a coho salmon, to know that its effects on fish spawning, rearing and migration habitat are not positive. Having exhausted all other avenues, Friends of the Stikine has decided to commence legal action against Cominco under the federal Fisheries Act. Should the courts decide in favour of DFO/Cominco's lack of evidence over our documented reports, so be it. We will do everything legally possible to prevent further destructive use of this technology. Please have a look at the report:

Who takes care of the river while government takes care of business?

Photo: Mine site in Iskut area

Given the de facto industrialisation of its major tributary, a commitment to protect the main stem Stikine becomes imperative. To do otherwise is to admit defeat and to give up a precious opportunity to pursue the elusive, but seemingly essential, watershed paradigm. Friends of the Stikine invites you to join us and other organisations on a campaign to obtain Canadian Heritage River status for the Stikine main stem. Having actively supported all river campaigns in British Columbia and across Canada for 15 years, FOS and its members applaud the government of British Columbia on its recent courageous decisions to protect a significant number of provincial rivers and for its bold initiative to create a provincial Heritage River program, as well as joining the government of Canada and the other provinces in the now nationwide Canadian Heritage River System program. Hooray! We are pleased to see Stikine among the inaugural group of nominees for the provincial program, and concur with the BC Heritage Rivers Board's nomination of the Fraser River as BC's premier nominee to the national CHRS program.

Friends of the Stikine suggests that it is now time to recognise the national and international significance of the Stikine River by having it designated as BC's next nominee to the national CHRS program. Inclusion of one of BC's premier wild rivers would be welcomed across Canada and would add an exciting element to the system as well as a welcome surge of fresh juice to the national unity debate. Notwithstanding the unspoken disposition of many people in industry and the assertions of some in politics, the vast majority of Canadians believe in a coast-to-coast unified Canada as being in the best interests of our common future. A mari usque ad mare, eh!

The rivers of Canada are the natural facilitators of this process and should be celebrated as such.

Come join us on this heritage river journey to celebrate our fresh water and our country, and to help out our common oceans. As always, we welcome expertise, advice, and volunteer assistance of any kind. Particularly at this time, we welcome any financial donation. A team is now being formed to coordinate our strategy, finances, and media and legal aspects of this campaign, which will surely include a fax/letter-writing campaign. Please stand by...

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