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Canada’s Prime Minister Wants to Save This Place From Oil Tankers

Canada’s Prime Minister Wants to Save This Place From Oil Tankers

The plan to bring tar sands oil through the Great Bear Rainforest isn’t dead yet. TakePart Journeys explores an alternative source of local development: tourism. | Dec. 30, 2015

By Kate Siber

Greg Shea knelt down and inspected several football-size mounds of upturned earth. “This is fresh,” he said in a whisper. “That’s bears digging for roots.” He paused, looking around as if inspecting a crime scene, senses heightened for clues. “They were probably just here.”

The sky was beginning to brighten on an October morning at the end of a long fjord on the northern British Columbia coast. Shea, captain of the Maple Leaf, a 92-foot sailboat that brings tourists to remote wilderness areas, and first mate Skye Maitland had motored eight passengers to shore in skiffs to explore a mucky estuary in search of wildlife.

“A wolf pack has been using this area pretty extensively,” he said. Tall and athletic, with a shock of boisterous blond curls, he gestured to the salmon carcasses strewn along the banks of a creek. “You see how all the salmon have their heads ripped off?” he said. “Basically the wolves will wait right here and pluck ’em out of the stream.” We tiptoed through the long grass on a path tamped down by the pack. Sitka spruce and cedar trees presided over the scene, resplendent in sleeves of moss. Nearby, fresh grizzly and wolf tracks crisscrossed a muddy hollow.

“You guys! Over there!” Shea whispered hoarsely. A couple hundred feet away, a grizzly bear reared up out of the meadow, standing probably over eight feet tall. I froze as fear rippled through my body, my unblinking eyes trained on the massive creature. The bear eyed us and sniffed for one crystalline moment, then returned to all fours and resumed clawing at the ground for roots. After a few minutes, it reared up again and spooked, disappearing into the trees. Before I could wonder what happened, a huge gray wolf materialized from the edge of the forest. It spotted us, paused, then sprinted after the bear. The wolf moved so fluidly and vanished so fast I almost wondered if I had conjured it from the dark corners of my imagination.

“That was probably a scout,” said Shea. “Where there’s one, you know there’s more.” Coastal wolves, he explained, occasionally hunt grizzly bears, teaming up and nipping at their haunches, sometimes for days, until the bears bleed to death. I was so immersed in the scene, I temporarily forgot myself, and Shea must have noticed my starry-eyed stare. “Being out here almost creates a bit of an addiction,” he said, his eyes lit with the thrill of the encounter. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

“Here” was the Great Bear Rainforest, a wild expanse of coastal British Columbia bigger than West Virginia that reaches from about 250 miles northwest of Vancouver to the border with Southeastern Alaska. It’s the largest remaining swath of intact temperate rainforest in the world, a kingdom of old-growth forests that harbor grizzlies, wolves, eagles, and rare white spirit bears. Thanks to a collision of landforms 9 million years ago, the coastline is crenellated with inlets, bays, and islands, which were then flattened and carved by glaciers. On a chart, the waterways look like the veins and arteries of some mysterious creature. Immersed in the landscape, the waters quiver with life—harbor seals, sea lions, dolphins, orcas, otters, and birds by the thousands. On occasion, there are so many humpbacks, the surface of the water smokes with whale breath.

As with any landscape of abundance, the Great Bear Rainforest has been targeted by extractive industries over the years. In the 17th and 18th centuries, international fur-trading ships hunted otters nearly to extinction—from an estimated 300,000 to a few hundred. Logging companies have tried to clear-cut swaths of the forest, meeting fierce resistance among environmental groups and activists from the indigenous communities, known as First Nations. Unsustainable commercial fishing operations, salmon farming, trophy hunting, offshore oil and gas exploration, and fossil fuel transport have also threatened the region’s ecosystems.

Now, it is facing arguably its greatest threat to date. In 2008, Enbridge, a Calgary-based energy infrastructure company, publicly proposed a $7.9 billion, 730-mile pipeline that would transport diluted bitumen, known as dilbit, from the tar sands of Alberta, the world’s third-largest oil reserve, to Kitimat, a remote First Nations port on the northern British Columbia coast. Dilbit is the same stuff that the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama rejected in November, would have transported from Alberta to Texas. Tar sands oil is a particularly carbon-intensive fossil fuel, so thick that to be transported it must be diluted—usually with carcinogenic toxins including benzene, which can pollute land and groundwater far beyond where it spills.

The Northern Gateway Pipeline would transport up to 525,000 barrels per day. From there, tankers would carry the crude to Asian markets. Proponents say that Northern Gateway would bring 3,000 construction jobs and 560 long-term jobs to British Columbia, infusing the economy with an estimated $32 million annually. Perhaps more important, it would provide the landlocked tar sands oil with new lucrative markets. Ninety-nine percent of Canada’s oil is now sold to the United States at deeply discounted prices because it effectively has nowhere else to go; supporters say access to new markets would boost Canada’s economy while reducing gas prices in the U.S. (though others have cast doubt on the claim). In 2014, Canada’s National Energy Board, under a conservative-led federal government, green-lit the project with 209 conditions, causing an uproar.

Critics say that the pipeline would run near sensitive forests and streams and that the proposed marine route to the Pacific would force 1,000-foot-long tankers, each loaded with as many as 2 million barrels of dilbit, to navigate narrow channels and complex shorelines mined with rocks and islets. Enbridge claims that stringent shipping standards and pipeline safety protocols would minimize the risk of a spill, but greens and many locals believe there is no acceptable risk.

On a broader level, climate scientists say that if we have any hope of preventing the worst effects of climate change, the oil from the tar sands must stay in the earth. A groundswell of British Columbians, including many First Nations bands, have unified against the pipeline, raising enough funds through film screenings, coffeehouse concerts, yoga classes, and other grassroots efforts for seven of them to fight the approval in court. A number of environmental organizations have also filed lawsuits to stop Northern Gateway.

On Nov. 13, a week after President Obama rejected Keystone XL, Canada’s newly elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau, asked his ministers to formalize a moratorium on oil tankers on the northern B.C. coast. With no way to transport the crude by sea, a pipeline would seem pointless. Environmental groups lauded the decision as the death knell for Northern Gateway, but an Enbridge spokesman said the company would continue to pursue it. A moratorium is an effective tool, but it is only as good as the administration that upholds it—and the permit has no expiration date. The First Nations case is now before the Federal Court of Appeal, which is expected to make a decision in 2016.

“We still have to kill that National Energy Board permit,” said Susan Smitten, executive director of RAVEN, a small nonprofit that raises funds for First Nations legal defense. “There’s still work to be done. Now is the time. Now is our window.”

I signed up for a nine-day trip on the Maple Leaf, a 1904 mahogany schooner with two masts, four sails, and brass fittings, to see the fjords and bays, the First Nations communities, and the abundant wildlife that would be affected by tanker traffic and the risk of a spill if Northern Gateway ever proceeds—and what would be protected if it doesn’t. I also came to experience ecotourism, which many on the coast are advocating as a more sustainable alternative to the boom-and-bust extractive development that has marred aspects of the region for decades.

In mid-October, on a 19-seat turboprop, I arrived in the morning in Bella Bella, a settlement of about 1,500 members of the Heiltsuk Nation. I was to meet the Maple Leaf at the marina that afternoon. On a bay rimmed with mountains, Bella Bella is little more than a crowd of unruly houses—square weather-beaten clapboards, some with trash in the yard. It’s a town that resists romanticization, but there was also a friendliness among the people so strong it surprised me. Just about every driver waved as I walked down the road. One even offered me a ride to the nation’s administrative building, where I was hoping to catch Marilyn Slett, the chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council.

In an office overlooking the bay, Slett, a soft-spoken woman with an air of serene capability, told me stories illustrating the Heiltsuk’s committment to protecting their territory. In the spring, a group of matriarchs and other tribal members occupied the local office of Fisheries and Oceans Canada for days with their sleeping bags, demanding an end to the unsustainable commercial harvest of herring, an important traditional food. They succeeded in stopping that fishery from operating in 2015 and are in talks to improve policies for the future.

Slett and others have been leading the opposition to Northern Gateway, and a few years ago an environmental organization invited her on an aerial tour of Alberta’s tar sands, a 1,850-square-mile expanse of open-pit mines and other infrastructure. She didn’t really want to go at first, but a friend told her she had to see for herself what they were dealing with.

“We were up in the air for about 45 minutes, and we still didn’t see everything,” she said. Slett and the others met with a group of elders from the Fort McKay First Nation, who warned them against allowing a pipeline through their B.C. home. “Because Fort McKay, they’re literally surrounded with the tar sands,” said Slett. “You could smell it when you’re there, even inside.” The elders told her they couldn’t hunt, or pick berries, or fish in their river “because their fish are all deformed.” She was told about the community’s high rates of cancer.

“I felt really sad after leaving those elders because they were basically the last people of their community that ever experienced fishing, hunting, berry picking,” she said, looking out the window over the water and the mountains. “We can’t let that happen.”

That afternoon, I boarded the Maple Leaf and gazed over the whole bay from the middle of it. I was more aware than usual of the moment’s context in time. In my mind’s eye, I fast-forwarded a few dozen years to a moment when, if the pipeline and tankers came to be, this place might look and feel very different. But here I am now, I thought, when the land and sea are still reasonably whole, and there is still the opportunity both to enjoy it all and to act. It seemed, in a sense, a gift.

The next day, seven passengers—retirees from Oregon and southern B.C., three German men in their 40s, and a couple from Australia—and I woke around dawn in Morehouse Bay and motored in Zodiacs—small, inflatable, flat-bottom boats used to make landings where there are no docks or moorings—to a nearby island. The water was still as tea and the air cold enough to turn our breath to steam. All around, hills clad in mossy spruce, cedar, and hemlock cascaded into the sea.

“We tell people to look for the golf balls in the trees,” said Maitland, the tall, young, Viking-blond first mate, as she steered the outboard motor and braced against the wind. I scanned the trees, and sure enough, the gleaming white heads of several bald eagles dotted the canopy like suspended golf balls. At the end of the bay, we stepped ashore onto seaweed-slicked rocks. Shea splashed a bucket of seawater on one boulder and magically the outlines of ancient petroglyphs appeared—figures with big round eyes, huge salmon with elegant, arcing tails.

A recent dig led by Hakai Institute and University of Victoria archaeologists discovered footprints in the area that date to 13,200 years ago. If further study confirms the dating, the footprints are the oldest in North America—and the second oldest in all of the Americas after a site in Chile.

After breakfast in the galley in the bow of the ship, we motored north. (These inlets are so protected sailors often don’t have enough wind to gather speed.) Cool sunshine illuminated the granite shoreline. A sea otter floated on its back in a kelp garden. Three humpbacks broke through the surface a few hundred feet from the ship, exhaling and bugling. Their flukes gracefully curled before disappearing into the black. A pod of three orcas traveled up the coast at speed, almost outpacing the ship. Their dorsal fins rose six feet out of the water.

In Salmon Bay, we clambered into the Zodiacs and puttered to shore as another trio—harbor seals, this time—poked their heads up and eyed us. Harmless moon jellies hung in the water like straying celestial bodies, and I counted 10 bald eagles between trees and sky. Walking up the estuary and into the forest, the sharp smell of decaying salmon arose. Their spent bodies littered the streams as the living patrolled the shallows, their fins breaking the surface—a reminder of the cycles of nutrients that support the entire landscape.

Later, on the Maple Leaf, I wandered into the wheelhouse, where Shea was poring over a monitor with digital charts as he guided the ship up Mathieson Channel. He zoomed out on the chart and pointed to all the rocks in Caamaño Sound that the tankers would need to negotiate. “On a clear day, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” he said, because you could easily see them. “But in a storm there would be breakers.” He zoomed out to show the possible routes out to open ocean.

“This here, Hecate Strait, is a notorious body of water,” he said, pointing to the screen. “With the shallows and southeast winds and current, all these things lined up the right way cause the seas to build to enormous size. Even the captains themselves are probably intimidated.”

A few days later, in Klemtu, a remote Kitasoo and Xai’Xais village of about 400, we pulled up to the dock and went ashore to visit a huge cedar community hall that smelled of deep, wet forests and hosted potlatches—celebrations once banned by an intolerant government—that lasted until the small hours. That evening, Doug Neasloss, the Kitasoo Band’s chief councillor and resource director, visited for dinner. (The Maple Leaf maintains relationships with many locals.) Neasloss, who sports a shaved head, a mustache, and a soul patch, has led efforts in his community to stop the Northern Gateway Pipeline and to end trophy hunting of grizzly bears in its territory; many First Nations have outlawed the practice, but British Columbia continues to issue permits for it. (Unlike most other indigenous groups in North America, many of the nations on the northern B.C. coast were never conquered. They never ceded lands and never signed treaties, which makes matters of jurisdiction a gray area.) The crew and guests gathered on the deck to hear Neasloss speak.

“We’re just trying to beat off all these big industries that want to come in and log it all out, fish it all out, transport oil and gas through our territories—it’s absolutely crazy what’s going on,” he said, standing next to the foremast. First Nations citizens living on reserves have much lower rates of employment than the national average; the need for economic development is pressing, and it’s easy to understand the temptation of extractive schemes. Yet, the First Nations in this area are unwavering in their opposition to the pipeline. “There are just a lot of unanswered questions,” Neasloss said. How would tanker traffic affect wildlife? How would the acoustic noise affect whales? What about gray-water discharge? We’re trying to send a strong message to the government to say they can’t push big projects without consulting First Nations.”

Neasloss has also led efforts to develop more sustainable forms of economic development in his community, particularly tourism. Fifteen years ago, he became one of the community’s first tour guides, taking visitors out into the forests to see spirit bears. Over time, the bears became so comfortable with him, they’d try to hide behind him in fights. One even approached and sniffed him from inches away. In 2007, he spearheaded the development of Spirit Bear Lodge, now the second-largest employer in the town after commercial fishing. As a result, Klemtu is the most-employed First Nations town in Canada on a per-capita basis.

Other coastal communities have also observed the power of tourism and are developing ventures. Four years ago, the Haida Enterprise Corporation bought Westcoast Resorts, a network of high-end fishing and ecotourism lodges. The Gitga’at run tour operations in Hartley Bay, and the Heiltsuk have identified ecotourism as a development priority. A study on the value of bear-viewing tourism versus trophy hunting led by the Center for Responsible Travel and Stanford University found that just bear-viewing tourists alone, only in the Great Bear Rainforest, bring in about $15.1 million annually, supporting more than 500 jobs. In all of British Columbia, tourism generated about $14 billion in revenue in 2013. “They’re undervaluing tourism here,” said Neasloss, as we made our way into the galley for dinner. “It’s huge.”

Beyond the economic benefits, I was beginning to see other boons to tourism managed sustainably. In 1986, when it opened as a tour operator after many years as a halibut long liner, Maple Leaf was the first ecotourism ship in the Great Bear Rainforest. A sailor named Kevin Smith bought the company in 2001 and still runs it as a conservation-focused company—from small measures such as only serving wild-caught salmon to a shareholder contract that empowers Smith to make decisions prioritizing the environment over the bottom line. Along with other tour operators, he started a program in which they pay First Nations a per-person per-day fee that funds a watchmen program that sends locals out in aluminum boats to protect their territories from trophy bear hunting, illegal fishing, and other concerns.

But one of the most powerful and undersung benefits of tourism is the value of showing people from around the world what there is to conserve here. “People will only protect what they love, and they have to get to know a place to be able to love it,” Smith told me after my trip. “We don’t shy away from telling the true stories of what’s going on. We don’t sugarcoat it and turn it into McTourism and say that everything’s fine and dandy. We want people to see and understand everything.” Smith says that on multiple occasions, guests felt so attached to the place that they donated huge grants to local nonprofits. Leafing through the guest book one day, one entry caught my eye.

“I was ambivalent about the possible effect of oil tankers on the coast, versus the economic value of the oil to the country,” wrote a guest on May 13. “No longer! I needed to see for myself and am convinced that no risk is acceptable.”

Over the week, I spent long hours on the deck, wrapped in down and Gore-Tex, as the scenery unfurled—simple, pleasing tableaux of blue, green, and white punctuated by whales and sea lions. Bald-headed mountains rose out of the water. For hours, I watched the fog move—rising and falling, swirling like smoke, and flattening over the trees. Come evening, I ventured out to see fistfuls of stars reflecting perfectly in the black sea.

There is great hope, with the recent move to enact a moratorium on oil tankers on the northern B.C. coast, that the Northern Gateway Pipeline will soon wither. Even if the Federal Court of Appeal releases a decision in 2016 favorable to First Nations or Enbridge abandons the pipeline, I suspect that this relatively intact, abundant place will always field threats, which makes alternative sustainable development all the more urgent for those who call the Great Bear Rainforest home. 

One morning, toward the end of the trip, we motored in the Zodiacs to some overhanging cliffs marked with faded red-tinted pictographs, likely centuries old. I sat there in the peaceful gloom of an overcast dawn, tilting my head to get a better look at the smudges and dots that remained. Some even looked vaguely humanoid. Before shortsighted industries discovered the region, people managed to live on these difficult but abundant shores for 13,000 years—or maybe longer. What, I wondered, could we learn from them?

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