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130 years after John Muir's visit, author seeks to save B.C.'s Sacred Headwaters

Wade Davis, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, photographer, filmmaker, and one of Canada's most brilliant writers, should not have time for this in his busy life.

But here he is in Vancouver – between speaking engagements and in the midst of a tour to promote two recently published books – working on a campaign to stop two major resource developments proposed in northern British Columbia.

"I spend about 20 per cent of my time every day on this," he said of his fight to save a region that the Tahltan people call the Sacred Headwaters.

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"I don't know how that happened … it's just become that important to me," said Mr. Davis, who is currently working on two new books and who recently completed a four-hour National Geographic documentary series shot in Australia, Mongolia and Colombia.

He now divides his time between his home in Washington, D.C., and his home province of British Columbia, where he worked as a park ranger before getting a PhD in ethnobotany at Harvard. He launched his writing career with the international best seller, The Serpent and the Rainbow, in 1986.

One of his latest books is The Sacred Headwaters, an extended essay illustrated by stunning landscape portraits provided by him and eight other wildlife photographers.

The book advances his campaign to halt a proposed open-pit copper and gold mine near Iskut, B.C., and to keep in place, permanently, a moratorium on shale-gas development that Shell Canada could lift later this year.

Mr. Davis, who is regularly featured on the TED lecture series, said he looked out from the stage at a recent presentation in California to see the president of Shell in the audience. Naturally, he reached out to him – multitasking again – and hopes to follow up with a meeting to discuss the future of the Sacred Headwaters.

"Maybe I'm naive," he said, "but I think he really cares."

If he doesn't, it is possible Mr. Davis can convince him by pressing a copy of The Sacred Headwaters into his hands and delivering one of his riveting monologues that sweep you across a magical landscape of dramatic mountains, majestic river valleys and plateaus criss-crossed with game trails.

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His book opens with a reference to John Muir, who helped save Yosemite Valley in the western Sierra Nevada mountains of California and who in 1890 successfully petitioned the U.S. Congress to create the national park system.

Mr. Davis writes that in 1879 Mr. Muir went up the Stikine River, which along with the Skeena and Nass Rivers rises in the Sacred Headwaters – and it blew his mind.

"I never before had seen so richly sculptured a range or so many awe-inspiring inaccessible mountains crowded together," Mr. Muir wrote in his journals.

The man who became known as the father of the U.S. national parks system also described the area in B.C. as "a Yosemite … a hundred miles long."

Mr. Davis shares the awe that Mr. Muir felt more than a century before. He says the Stikine has cut as deeply into the landscape as the Colorado River does in the Grand Canyon, and there are such high populations of big game that the area is often referred to as the Serengeti of Canada.

"What shocks me is that so many Canadians don't know what we have there," he said. "Most Canadians like the idea of the North – but we never go there."

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So he is out to educate as many people as he can, through books, films, lectures and, when possible, by sitting down with resource industry presidents in their own boardrooms.

Adding some urgency to Mr. Davis's quest, on Monday the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. released its "most endangered rivers" list for 2012. Tied for first place are the three rivers of the Sacred Headwaters (Skeena, Nass and Stikine) and the Kokish River, on northern Vancouver Island.

Mark Angelo, Rivers Chair of ORC, said the organization, which has close to 100,000 members, grouped the three Sacred Headwaters rivers as one because they are so close together.

"When you fly over, you can see all three at once. That is so special … I really don't think there is anywhere else like this in North America," said Mr. Angelo.

The other rivers on the endangered list are the Kitimat, Peace, Kettle, Fraser, Taku, Elk, Big Silver Creek and Coquitlam River.

All of them are worth saving. But the fact that Mr. Davis and Mr. Angelo have both put the Sacred Headwaters at the top of their lists should tell us something.

Here we have a place that rivals Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and the Serengeti. And it is not yet protected.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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