Smooth lumps of translucent blue ice float alongside rock-encrusted icebergs that have broken from Shakes Glacier before drifting into the Stikine River.
There is little trace of the heavy hand of human disturbance as tourists on the jet boat scramble on to a small scrub island and gaze at the expanse of ice, snowy peaks and dark cliffs sweeping down to the wild Stikine, the fastest free-flowing river in the U.S.
“You don’t have to go far to find a place where no human has set foot on it before,” said James Leslie, who has been navigating the river since he was nine years old and drives the jet boat for his family’s company.
“It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”
Leslie grew up in the nearby community of Wrangell and, like many in the area, uses the river for fishing, access to moose hunting, work and recreation.
The “anything” that Leslie fears is a spill or accident at nearby mines on the Canadian side of the border.
About 10 mining applications in the mineral-rich border area are either undergoing or have completed environmental assessments and numerous others are in the exploration stage. Among projects on the books are Schaft Creek, an open pit mine proposed for a previously untouched area close to one of the Stikine’s major tributaries, and the Galore Creek mine planned for an area between the Stikine and Iskut rivers.
“This river is 360 miles (579 kilometres) in length and only 35 miles (56 kilometres) is in the U.S. The rest is on the Canadian side and it is protected, but not to the same level as here,” Leslie explained to the boatload of tourists.
The area around the Stikine on the U.S. side of the border is part of the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness, which means no development.
“If there was any kind of mining accident it would be completely devastating and it seems there is nothing we can do about it,” Leslie said facing the tangled underbrush, overlooked by a tall tree used for moose-spotting. One could only guess what the damage to this area would be if an upstream mine suffered a Mount Polley-style tailings spill.
Alaskan tourism and fishing organizations and some politicians are pushing for more input into B.C.’s decision-making and assessments of mine proposals and want the transboundary mining issue referred to the International Joint Commission, the body designed to deal with water and air problems between the U.S. and Canada.
In small Alaskan communities, where there is a fierce independence and a history of mining, concerns about Canadian activities were slow to take root.
“But now people are getting worried because of the salmon and the tourists,” Leslie said.
Tourism is a billion-dollar industry for Southeast Alaska with seven million hectares, or almost three-quarters of the area, included in the Tongass National Forest.
On the B.C. side of the border, provincial parks are more fragmented with the Spatsizi Wilderness, Mount Edziza and Stikine River provincial parks adding up to about one million hectares.
One of the reasons why so much of Alaska has remained relatively pristine is the unique State Constitution, which spells out an expectation that natural resources should be developed in a responsible way, said Kyle Moselle, project manager for Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
“It presents a balancing act,” he said.
That translates into the state wanting to attract more mining activity, but always having to consider the public’s best interest, which means developing a mine can be a three- to 10-year process, Moselle said.
Only five mines are in operation in Alaska while in B.C., there are 10 large copper, gold and zinc mines and 10 coal mines.
Laurie Cooper, tourism relations director for Trout Unlimited, knows the wilderness is the major draw for Alaska tourists.
“I think it’s the mystique of Alaska. The big, wild landscapes and the big, wild animals. People want to see whales and bears and glaciers and, in order to see bears, you need fish. It’s the largest intact coastal rainforest in the world and that’s what draws people,” she said.
However, in an area where communities popped up around mining and logging, it has taken a shift in mindsets to make people realize the value of sustainability and now, with ongoing campaigns to raise awareness about Canadian mining, they are worried about the threat to tourism, Cooper said.
“No one wants to do sightseeing over a tailings flow. If it was tagged as somewhere that had an environmental disaster, people wouldn’t want to come here,” she said.
“We need to encourage our government to weigh in and do what they can to stop the impacts from upstream.”
It is not only those involved in wilderness tourism who are worried. In downtown Juneau, cruise ships loom over the city, sometimes doubling the population of 32,000. Cruising is big business, with an estimated 975,000 cruise ship passengers visiting Southeast Alaska last year, spending about $595-million.
As passengers stream off the ships looking for entertainment many head to the Mount Roberts Tramway and, inside the cable car, which zips up the mountain behind Juneau, John Perkins is playing his drum and regaling passengers with Tlingit stories and legends.
Canadian mining is not a topic that comes up frequently among the visitors, but for many like Perkins, who rely on the tourist industry, it is frequently on his mind.
“Of course I worry about it,” he said.
Image Credit: Summit Charters