The Chilkat Watershed
North of the Taku is the Chilkat watershed. Covering about 900,000 acres or 36,500 hectares, it’s considerably smaller than the Taku, but no less spectacular. Unlike other transboundary river systems, only the very headwaters of the Chilkat are in British Columbia, the far northwest corner of the province, making most of the watershed Alaskan, embracing the upper end of the state’s southeast panhandle. The Klehini and Tsirku Rivers join to form the Chilkat, winding through the jagged snow-capped mountain flanked Chilkat Valley.
Perhaps even more so than is the case with its transboundary watershed counterparts, most everything about the Chilkat is notable. For example, that it flows by the ancient and still extant Tlingit Native Village of Klukwan, and then through North America’s only designated Bald Eagle Preserve, before emptying into rich estuaries teeming with life at the upper reach of the Inside Passage, the Lynn Canal, near Haines Alaska. Due to geologic features causing an unusual hydrologic upwelling, the Chilkat freezes considerably later than other rivers in the area, explaining in part why it hosts the world’s largest congregation of eagles among its riverside cottonwoods in the fall and is renowned for its Chinook and Coho salmon. The Chilkat River, Jilkaat Heeni in the Tlingit language, means storage container for salmon. With jaw dropping scenery, rafting and canoeing on the Chilkat is very popular. And the Borough of Haines, long centered on resource extraction, is evolving to increasingly embrace the stunning natural setting, wildlife viewing, and outdoor adventure opportunities of the Chilkat as one of the community’s most significant assets.
The Constantine Issue
Unfortunately, the prospect of mining looms over the Chilkat. The Constantine project (also known as the Palmer project) is in an intensive advanced mineral exploration operation high above the Chilkat’s Klehini River tributary. A consortium called Constantine hopes to produce silver, gold, zinc, copper, and barite from a sulfide ore body sure to generate acidic runoff. Leaching of mine waste into ground or surface water is a big concern, and the prospect of a toxic tailings impoundment that would have to be maintained for centuries, perched high above the Chilkat Valley, in a land of heavy precipitation and prone to earthquakes, is unsettling to say the least. The exploration covers both state and federal Bureau of Land Management holdings, and exploration activity has been allowed to proceed with limited environmental reviews. Consequently, the Chilkat made the American Rivers 2019 Top Ten Endangered Rivers list.
If the Constantine project goes forward, Haines would be the deep-water shipping port for ore, necessitating major infrastructure development. The new port facility would become a driver for more resource development in an incredibly wild and remote corner of our continent. So there is much more at stake regionally with this issue than the fate of the Chilkat.
Just downstream of the Constantine exploration, the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan opposes mining in the Chilkat. In Tlingit, Klukwan means eternal village. The Tribe has nominated the Chilkat watershed for Tier 3 protective status, reserved for Alaska’s most pristine rivers. The Eagle Preserve should also rank with the most protected land designations in Alaska. Haines is reckoning with the mining possibility, the community split on its view. There is also a great deal of local grassroots interest and concern about the issue.
Confronting Chilkat Mineral Exploration
While proposed mining is still in an exploratory stage, Rivers Without Borders believes a strong showing of scrutiny and concern about the Constantine issue by Chilkat watershed stakeholders as well as anyone who cares about this amazing river system is critical, and we are honored to be supportive of Chilkat Indian Village, Lynn Canal Conservation, commercial fishermen, community members and others to that end. Expert research we contracted has found that Constantine is on shaky economic grounds, just as was the case with the Tulsequah Chief mine proposal for the Taku. We are also one of multiple plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Bureau of Land Management piecemeal permitting of Constantine exploration activity without consideration of the possible consequences of mining which that exploration could lead to.
It’s a crossroads time for the Chilkat, and Rivers Without Borders is doing all it can to ensure that the way forward keeps Jilkaat Heeni all it is.