Overview of the Iskut-Stikine Watershed
The transboundary Iskut-Stikine watershed is one of North America’s largest and most intact wild salmon watersheds. The Stikine, meaning The Great River in the Tlingit language, covers a diverse range of climates and geography from alpine tundra to ancient coastal rainforests. John Muir described part of the Stikine as “a Yosemite 100 miles long.” It is 52,000 square kilometers/20,000 square miles, making it larger than Switzerland.
The Iskut-Stikine watershed is the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation, and supports thriving sport, commercial and subsistence fisheries, guided and subsistence hunting, and a variety of other cultural, recreational and economic activities.
The Stikine River is 640 kilometers/400 miles long from its headwaters in BC’s Spatsizi Plateau to its estuary near Wrangell, Alaska. The Iskut River, the largest tributary of the Stikine, flows for 236 km/145 miles from Kluachon Lake near Iskut, BC to its confluence with the lower Stikine River near the US/Canada border.
Despite substantial protected areas, the Iskut-Stikine is one of the continent’s most threatened watersheds. Several mining and energy projects are in development while about a dozen companies are negotiating with the Tahltan First Nation for other projects to begin. The scope and pace of proposed development in the Iskut-Stikine is unprecedented.
The Upper Iskut-Stikine region, separated from the Lower River region by Highway 37 (the Stewart-Cassiar Highway), is dominated by the Spatsizi Plateau. Known as “BC’s Serengeti,” Spatsizi contains some of the most spectacular wildlife populations in BC and its healthy predator-prey interactions are reminiscent of those that once dominated all of North America. This upper region of the watershed forms part of the Sacred Headwaters where four great rivers are born the Stikine, Skeena, Finlay and Nass. It is a vital subsistence and cultural area for the Tahltan First Nation, whose name for it means Land of the Red Goat. The upper reach of the river runs for 260 km/160 miles from Tuaton Lake to the Highway 37 bridge over the Stikine.
The upper watershed contains world-class wildlife habitat and populations, and is important for the Tahltan’s traditional and guided hunting. The aggressive industrial development now underway threatens this and other existing economies and cultural activities. The Todagin Wildlife Management Area hosts the largest lambing herd of Stone Sheep in the world, and BC’s largest concentration of woodland caribou gathers in the Spatsizi for the rut. Goats, bears, moose and wolves also thrive here. This area feeds the Nass, Skeena and Stikine river systems, providing clean water for salmon, wildlife and people. While Spatsizi Provincial Park does protect some of this region, the Sacred Headwaters were excluded from the park to accommodate future mining development.
The major threats to the Upper Iskut-Stikine region and its people are numerous, and include:
In the Sacred Headwaters, Royal Dutch Shell’s subsidiary, Shell Canada Energy, is exploring for coal-bed methane gas and has drilled test wells at the head of the Little Klappan and Spatsizi Rivers. This type of industrial activity requires hundreds of gas wells connected by access roads and pipelines, and the energy it produces contributes to climate change. This project would be especially threatening to water quality given the use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in which large volumes of fracking fluid, often including toxic chemicals, are injected underground to blast apart the coal and release the gas. Coal-bed methane production has never been done in a wild salmon-bearing watershed, and this development threatens water quality in the Skeena, Stikine, and Nass Rivers. There is currently a moratorium on coal-bed methane development in this region but that moratorium expires in 2012.
Red Chris Mine Briefing. Click on image to access document.
Imperial Metals’ proposed Red Chris mine is located on the Todagin Plateau between Ealue and Kluea Lakes, approximately 18 km/11 miles southeast of the village of Iskut. This mine proposal is a conventional shovel and truck open-pit copper-gold-silver mine and milling operation which would process over 30,000 tone of ore per day over an expected mine life of 28 years. Red Chris is the most advanced mine proposal in the southern transboundary region and is currently under construction. The proposed mine is located in the territory of the Tahltan First Nation, in high value wildlife habitat, with a tailings storage area located in fish bearing waters. Despite First Nations objections, and a court challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, Red Chris received Provincial and Federal environmental approvals, and Mines Act permits. The Red Chris mine is contingent on completion of construction of the Northwest Transmission Line (NTL) (see Lower Iskut-Stikine below), currently scheduled to be completed and operational in spring 2014. Imperial Metals aims to build the Iskut Extension to tie into the NTL and begin mine production by spring 2014. Ore concentrate would be trucked from the proposed mine to the deep-water port at Stewart, BC, and shipped to a smelter overseas. Mine activity, especially frequent blasting, would threaten the Stone Sheep populations on Todagin Mountain. The tailings impoundment would impact fish habitat and likely end a 55 year-old traditional Tahltan guided hunting enterprise.
The proposed Arctos Anthracite Project open-pit coal mine is just on the edge of the Spatsizi Provincial Park, with the haul road to go from the headwaters of the Little and Big Klappan drainages of the Stikine through the headwaters of the Nass and Bell-Irving. The project is owned by a joint venture between Fortune Minerals (80%) and Posco Canada (20%), a subsidiary of Korea’s POSCO. The Arctos claims straddle the BC Railway right-of-way and rail bed. Fortune plans to extend the railway to the mine site and use coal trains for transportation to Prince Rupert. Fortune is currently performing geologic, environmental, and mine planning studies to develop the area. The Tahltan First Nation is opposed to this mine in the Sacred Headwaters. It blockaded the mine site in summer 2013. It has been asking the mining company to respect Tahltan land and rights, and reconsider plans for the 40-square kilometre open-pit mine.
The combined impacts of all of the projects currently proposed in the Iskut-Stikine watershed would do immense harm to the environment and to local communities.
In 2006, Iskut First Nation elders formed a group called the Klabona Keepers Elders Society, as a step to ensure the long-term sustainable stewardship of their territory, especially the Sacred Headwaters. In August 2006, the Iskut Nation hosted a gathering to support the protection of the Sacred Headwaters. Joining the Iskut Nation were Hereditary Chiefs of the Haida, Gitxsan, Wet’suwet’en, Taku River Tlingit, and Haisla Nations, as well as non-aboriginal allies, including Rivers Without Borders.
This collaboration between First Nations, and between First Nations and non-aboriginal allies, is critical to turning back this tide of aggressive and poorly planned development. A reasonable plan would be for the BC government to halt any industrial development in the Sacred Headwaters and slow down the pace of development and exploration elsewhere in the Stikine.
The Lower Iskut-Stikine region includes 386 km/240 miles of the mainstem Stikine River, from the Highway 37 bridge over the Stikine to the sea, including the 100 km/60 mile Grand Canyon section with its 300 metre/1000 foot walls. This area also includes the Iskut River, the main tributary to the Stikine River, which flows for 236 km/145 miles from Kluachon Lake near Iskut, BC to its confluence with the lower Stikine River near the US/Canada border.
The Lower region supports thriving sport, commercial and subsistence fisheries in BC and Alaska, and provides important economic, recreational and cultural opportunities for Iskut, Telegraph Creek and Dease Lake in BC, and Petersburg and Wrangell in Alaska.
This region is vital for wild salmon, with many fish spawning in the mainstem Stikine. The Iskut River supplies critical spawning, rearing and migration habitat for up to 40% of the entire watershed’s salmon and steelhead. The salmon are a keystone species in the coastal food chain, providing a vital food source for grizzly bear and other animals, as well as contributing to the nutrient cycle critical to the health of coastal ecosystems. The wild salmon are also vital to the economy of Southeast Alaska.
The confluence of the Stikine and Iskut Rivers is an important wetland complex providing habitat for many species including migratory birds, moose, mountain goats, wolves and bear. The Lower Iskut-Stikine is the largest river system in BC where a thriving valley-bottom riparian habitat has not been altered by commercial timber harvesting. The lower 48 km/30 miles of the Stikine in Alaska are protected as part of the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area. The estuary is irreplaceable migratory bird habitat for half a million geese, swans, ducks, eagles and other birds.
This Lower region is part of an extensively mineralized belt that the mining industry refers to as The Golden Triangle. Mining exploration and development, with its associated need for roads and power, is rapidly increasing. The potential for damage to water quality, and wildlife and salmon habitat, is significant given the scale of planned development in this region.
BC Hydro, a regulated provincial Crown Corporation, is planning to build the Northwest Transmission Line (NTL), a 344 km/214 mile long 287 kilovolt transmission line between Skeena Substation (near Terrace) and a new substation to be built near Bob Quinn Lake on Highway 37 (Stewart-Cassiar Highway). This project is already permitted and funded, impact benefit agreements have generally been completed with First Nations whose territories will be crossed or imposed on, designers and contractors have been hired, and the NTL is planned to be complete and in service by December 2013.
Northwest Transmission Line briefing. Click on image to view or download pdf.
While BC Hydro already has an existing 138 kilovolt line running north (see map in NTL briefing document at right) generally along the planned NTL route from Terrace through Cranberry Junction to the Meaziadin Substation and west to Stewart, this new line is being built to power proposed mining projects in the region. The economics for each of the major mining proposals – Galore Creek, Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, Schaft Creek, and Red Chris – are dramatically improved by the presence of the NTL, and mining companies have advocated for the power line for years.
The AltaGas Iskut River hydroelectric project complex will be one of the largest river diversion, or “run-of-river,” hydro developments in North America.
Iskut River Hydroelectric Development Project briefing. Click image to view or download the pdf.
Located on the Iskut River, 40 km/25 miles west of Bob Quinn Lake in west central BC, the project consists of three separate hydroelectric facilities – Forrest Kerr, McLymont Creek, and Volcano Creek – all of which are owned by AltaGas Renewable Energy. All power produced by these facilities, call the “anchor tenants of the NTL,” will be sold to BC Hydro. Forrest Kerr, the biggest of these facilities at 195 megawatts, is currently under construction. Ten kilometers west of Forrest Kerr, the McLymont Creek hydroelectric project is planned to generate 44 to 70 megawatts of electricity. The Volcano Creek project, located 5 kilometers upstream from Forrest Kerr on the Volcano Creek tributary of the Iskut River, would generate 15 to 18 megawatts of power. AltaGas’ objective is to have Forrest Kerr operational in 2014, and McLymont Creek and Volcano Creek in 2015.
In connection with the NTL extension of the power grid up to Bob Quinn Lake and the power generated by the Iskut River hydroelectric project cluster, a number of mining companies have proposed developments in this region. The largest of these are the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mine proposed by Seabridge Gold (in the Unuk watershed), the Galore Creek mine proposed by NovaGold and Teck Resources, the Snowfield and Brucejack mines proposed by Pretium Resources, and the Schaft Creek mine proposed by Copper Fox Metals.
The Galore Creek Mine Project is a massive proposed copper-gold-sliver mine located between the Iskut and Stikine Rivers west of Highway 37. For more information about this mine proposal, click this link to read or download the briefing document.
The Schaft Creek Project is a proposed 150,000 tonnes per day open pit copper-gold-molybdenum-silver mine located along the southwest edge of the Mount Edziza Provincial Park. For more information about this mine proposal, click this link to read or download the briefing document.
Alaska continues to promote the transboundary Bradfield Road project, both as a road and power line route from Wrangell, Alaska to Highway 37 near Iskut, BC. The area potentially affected by the road is part of one of the most extensive mainland roadless areas in North America, bounded by the Stikine/LeConte Wilderness, Misty Fiords National Monument and the Craig Headwaters Protected Area. The critical Iskut-Stikine confluence wetlands would become much more accessible, with potentially grave impacts on the grizzly bears and migratory birds that currently thrive there. In addition, this road would pave a way for BC resources to flow to US ports. For more information, click this link to read or download the briefing document, “Boundary Watersheds of Southeast Alaska Under Threat.”