Another kind of dream (Comment/Op-ed)

👤Sheila Peters 🕔Nov 25, 2013

I live beside a gravel road. You cross a small bridge into the heart of Driftwood Canyon and, for a couple of kilometres, the hydro poles have been rerouted out of sight. The curves of the road that follow the dictates of topography are beautiful; they move like the creek itself, the one that carved the canyon. For a few moments, as I follow my dog and listen to the creek, the croak of a raven, or the rasp of a kinglet, there’s the time and space to dream.

Imagine living in a world where walking and cycling prevail, where vehicles are small and efficient, powered by quiet batteries charged by the sun. Imagine solar planes carrying hikers, hunters and fishers into the northern wilds. Imagine a world where young men and women are encouraged to observe the other inhabitants of the planet and learn to live unobtrusively among them and with each other. Where their creativity and ingenuity are turned toward reducing our consumption of the Earth’s resources instead of figuring out how to make you click on a link to an Internet ad.

Surely this is no more crazy a dream than Perry Collins’ $3 million scheme to run a telegraph wire joining North America to England taking the longest possible route, a route that included a stretch through northern BC to Alaska, across the Bering Strait to Russia, and on to Europe. By 1866 his crew had made it just north of Hazelton when they abandoned the project having heard, via their own telegraph line, that a transatlantic cable had been successfully laid. No more wild a fantasy than when, 40 years later, wire was strung between trees, over mountains, and across rivers all the way to the Yukon. Cabins were built every 20 or 30 miles along the way and staffed with operators and linesmen year round right into the 1930s, when radios made the wire obsolete.

Meanwhile, writers like Hamlin Garland and John Muir were heading toward the Stikine country from the south and west in search of places where people tread lightly upon the land.

“When John Muir traveled the lower third of the Stikine in 1879, he called it a Yosemite a hundred miles (160 kilometres) long, and he counted some 300 glaciers along its tortuous course. It’s a land where Canada could hide England, and the English would never find it,” writes Wade Davis in the field notes to his own 2004 National Geographic article celebrating the region and its inhabitants.

Think of the crazy dreamers who finally drummed up the financing to complete the road from Kitwanga to the Yukon border when fewer than 1,000 people lived along the 725-km route, or the $160 million sunk into the Dease Lake railway extension before it was abandoned 200 km short of its destination. Both projects, whether completed or abandoned, brought even more dreamers into the region: some dreaming of striking it rich and others looking for wild places that were becoming harder and harder to find.

In that context, the current spending of over 600 million tax dollars to build the Northern Transmission Line so Imperial Metals can remove about 30 tons of Todagin Mountain every day for the next 25 years just next door to the Sacred Headwaters fits right into a long history of dementia. (If you think the transmission line is being built to get approximately 300 Iskut residents off diesel-generated electricity, then you’re another kind of dreamer altogether.)

Our federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans helped the mine avoid a comprehensive environmental assessment by dividing the project into pieces and ignoring the mine itself. According to Ecojustice’s report on the results of a court case it initiated with MiningWatch, the Supreme Court of Canada “ruled that the federal government cannot split projects into artificially small parts to avoid rigorous environmental assessments” and “held that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had failed to comply with the legal requirements to conduct a comprehensive study and associated public participation.” The court “granted a declaration that the process followed was illegal, but decided not to overturn the environmental assessment certificate.”

It wasn’t Imperial Metals’ fault that the federal government broke its own rules. Instead, its actions mean we get to pay $52 million of the costs to extend the transmission line to that mine. Go figure.

Imagine spending some of those millions to develop a coherent energy plan for Canada that didn’t require oil and gas pipelines to cross our already threatened salmon streams. To plan for orderly mineral exploration in the northwest where projects rise and fall like spinning tops, leaving behind half-built roads, washed-out bridges and polluted sites. Imagine even a fraction of those millions going to properly protect the wild places and creatures that live in them, where a couple of BC Parks staff in the Dease Lake office are expected to oversee thousands of hectares of parks spread over 1.5 million hectares. Where a couple of conservation officers monitor the operations of more than a dozen guide-outfitters and the many resident hunters who have ever-increasing access to places that were once very hard to reach.

There are still sections of Highway 37 that curl and swoop through the complex topography that gives rise to the Skeena, the Nass and the Stikine watersheds. As well as the transport trucks, diesel pickups and crew buses that supply both transmission line and mining projects in the region, motorhomes, campers and even a few cyclists wend their way through that beautiful country. More and more of us seek out the same pleasure and challenge of wild places that so entranced Muir 150 years ago.

But now much of the main route into the Stikine country parallels a right-of-way that cuts a swath across the stunning scenery, including the beautiful Ninginsaw Pass north of Bell II. The stern lines drawn by the wires strung between the massive towers and poles of the Northern Transmission Line tell a story centuries older than the insulators people still occasionally find along Collins’ original route. There is nowhere the dreamers and schemers won’t go. And it seems each dream is more grandiose and destructive than the last. Perhaps it’s time we started dreaming differently.