Between the abandoned mining town of Cassiar and the struggling port of Stewart, in the northwest corner of British Columbia, Highway 37 runs through one of the most dramatic and resource-rich landscapes in Canada.
It is the kind of place where the cabins are festooned with moose antlers, where grizzly bears can be seen fishing for salmon and where caribou herds stand dumbstruck by the roadside because they seldom see traffic.
The Stewart-Cassiar region, home of the Tahltan First Nation, is as remote an area as you can find in B.C. and isn't a place you'd expect highlighted on political and corporate agendas.
But a significant shift taking place in the native political structure there has drawn attention all the way from Victoria to Europe, as the Tahltan strive to assert control over a region that contains such abundant mineral resources that it has been dubbed the Golden Triangle.
There are eight mining projects proposed along Hwy. 37, and a recent study projected that they could generate $3.5-billion in capital investments, create 2,000 jobs and result in more than $300-million in annual revenues.
That is the kind of resource activity that the B.C. government, now in a run-up to a spring election, is starved for. And with a dead mining town at one end of the highway (Cassiar closed in 1992 when asbestos mining halted), a bulk shipping port at the other that is struggling because of a logging downturn, and with two active mines facing scheduled closing, the Tahltan need new job opportunities.
Drive Hwy. 37 north from Stewart and it isn't long before you see heavy lift helicopters clattering overhead carrying mining supplies. But there are also protest signs, declaring "Get the Shell Out." And close to the native community of Iskut there is a spur road that runs off into a region named the Sacred Headwaters where, for the past three years, Shell and Fortune Minerals have run into roadblocks set up by Tahltan elders.
Shell wants to drill 1,000 wells to extract coal-bed methane gas, and Fortune wants to mine 123 million tonnes of high-grade metallurgical coal. But first they need the band's approval.
The Sacred Headwaters, named because three major salmon rivers - the Skeena, Nass and Stikine - were born there, has become the symbol of wider conflicts in B.C. between native bands and resource companies.
Annita McPhee, the newly elected head of the Tahltan Central Council, says that, before dealing with any proposed mines, the band must first find a way for everyone to express their views.
"We're developing a process for decision making, a new governance structure, and it's going to take some time," she said in an interview this week.
"There's a high concentration of development proposed in our area and our people need to have a say in what is developed, and what isn't. ... We want to find a balance between protecting the land and providing employment for our people."
Ms. McPhee, who has a law degree from the University of Victoria, was elected in July on a ticket that emphasized the need for the Tahltan to speak with a united voice. Her decision to enter politics was spurred largely by a burning debate over Shell's controversial proposal to drill for coal-bed methane gas in the Sacred Headwaters.
Will Horter, executive director of the Dogwood Initiative, a non-profit group that helps indigenous people gain control over their traditional lands, said the Tahltans are at the forefront of a growing movement in B.C., which is seeing bands demand more say about resource development.
"There's a handful of vanguard first nations that are working internally and with partners like us and others ... to promote a positive vision of how they want their region and their territories to be managed," Mr. Horter said. "They are flexing their muscles."
He said that, in the past, resource companies have been able to push their projects through over the objections of often poorly organized local bands. But the Tahltan have realized that if they speak with a unified voice, they can gain control over which projects proceed and which do not, Mr. Horter said.
Other bands in B.C. are watching with interest, he said, and a coming native mining summit, to be held in Prince George next month, is an indication that native leaders want direct control over what resource activities take place in their regions.
For Shell and Fortune Minerals, the go-slow approach of the Tahltan has caused some obvious difficulties.
But spokesmen for both corporations expressed patience in interviews this week, and said they remain optimistic they will eventually proceed, with full Tahltan support.
Larry Lalonde, a Shell representative, said the company had planned to do test drilling in the Sacred Headwaters region this year, but called it off to allow the Tahltan to reorganize their governance structure.
"We aimed to go back in [drilling]this fall, but we've put a pause on that," Mr. Lalonde said in a phone call from The Hague. "... We realized that in order to have effective conversations and dialogue with them, [we have to]give them the opportunity to work out the issues that they have on governance."
Mr. Lalonde said Shell remains "hopeful" it can get its project under way soon.
Robin Goad, president of Fortune Minerals, is also watching with interest. He said there have been conflicting opinions within the Tahltan community for years over resource development, which has made it hard for industry to know exactly where the goalposts stood.
But he rejected the suggestion his project has been stalled because of resistance from the Tahltan. The roadblock in 2005 did halt Fortune Minerals work on site, but Mr. Goad feels the protesters represent only a small group within the Tahltan First Nation.
"We are not running into resistance from the leadership of the Tahltan. We have had some resistance from a fringe group which have backing from what I would describe as radical environmental movements. But we have an excellent relationship with the leadership," he said.
Mr. Goad said the native community remains "fractured" over the issue of resource development, and he hopes Ms. McPhee can lead the community to consensus - and that the view will favour the project his company is proposing.
He said that while the Tahltan may not agree to all the proposals in the area, he's certain they'll go for some of them.
"There are some people within the Tahltan community who are very pro-development, there are some that are very aligned with the radical environmental groups that want no development whatsoever, and then the vast majority of the people fall somewhere in between," he said.
The big question is, how will that "majority" vote when the Tahltan Central Council asks the people where they stand on the new projects proposed for the area?
And that's a $3.5-billion question.
Shell's proposal to drill for coal-bed methane in the Mount Klappan area has run into increasing opposition.
While the Tahltan First Nation is still formulating its official position, elders have blockaded an access road for the past two years, keeping Shell drilling rigs out of the area. And while the group of elders, known as the Klabona Keepers, have stalled Shell's plans on the ground, opposition has grown outside the area.
This week, the Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a resolution calling on the B.C. government to shelve Shell's plans, saying the Sacred Headwaters area, at Mount Klappan, should not be put at risk.
The City of Prince Rupert sponsored the resolution, with support from the towns of Hazelton, Fernie and Princeton.
And Friday, the First Nations Summit, a provincial native leadership organization, passed a resolution calling for a 10-year moratorium on all coal-bed methane drilling in B.C.
The resolution states that coal-bed methane extraction "has caused significant harm to water, wildlife and rural economies" in other jurisdictions in North America.
It notes that coal-bed methane projects are currently proposed in the Sacred Headwaters area, in the Telkwa coalfield, and near the cities of Fernie, Princeton and Hudson's Hope.
"The areas of B.C. in which coal-bed methane development is proposed are areas of culturally, economically and ecologically significant fish and wildlife populations, including three of North America's most important wild salmon runs," the resolution states.
It says that in assessing coal-bed methane projects, B.C. "does not consider cumulative regional impacts, the interests of downstream communities or meet the Crown's obligation to consult and accommodate aboriginal title and rights."
It calls for a moratorium in order to allow British Columbia to develop more rigorous regulations.
After that is done, it says, the province should proceed only with coal-bed methane development "in areas where it does not infringe aboriginal title and rights."
ROCK AND COAL
A mountain of coal lies in the Sacred Headwaters area, but while it has been the focus of a lot of interest, it still hasn't been turned into a mine.
And if the Tahltan reject the proposal, the project may never go ahead.
A series of resource companies have been interested in the Mount Klappan coal deposit since 1981, when Gulf Canada Resources Ltd. began to do preliminary work on the site. Between 1981 and 1991, Gulf spent $70-million trying to bring the mine into operation, doing engineering, transportation, power, environmental and socioeconomic studies.
Gulf also did extensive drilling. Of 33 coal seams identified, 12 were identified as being good targets for mining.
In 1985-86, a 200,000-tonne bulk sample was mined and processed in a pilot plant at the site, with half of that amount shipped to customers in North America, Asia and Europe.
The Mount Klappan property became inactive in 1991, however, after the collapse of one of Gulf's major shareholders.
In 2001, Fortune Minerals Ltd., a London, Ont.-based resource company, purchased the property from Conoco Canada Resources Ltd., which had taken over Gulf.
Fortune has spent about $5-million on the project, including doing studies on various transportation options. Fortune sees three possible ways to get the coal out of the area: by truck down Highway 37 to Stewart; by a slurry line to Stewart; by rail to Prince Rupert.
The rail option would require laying about 70 kilometres of track along an old BC Rail right-of-way that runs through the mine site.
The Fortune proposal would see about two million tonnes of coal mined in an open-pit operation each year.
The Tahltan First Nation, however, has not yet given approval for the project.
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