"North America's Wildest River"
Tatshenshini-Alsek Park is a land where wild, vast rivers cut their way through ice clad peaks, creating lush valleys that are home to extensive wildlife populations.
Located in the northwestern corner of Canada where the boundaries of British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon converge, the 1.5 km (1 mi) wide Tatshenshini-Alsek River flows amidst nearly 5 km (3 mi) high mountains. Here glaciers descend to waters' edge, shearing off thunderously into icebergs. It is North America's wildest river. Surrounded by national parks, the Tatshenshini-Alsek headwaters run through the subarctic tundra of the Yukon's Kluane National Park, the middle reaches flow past the towering peaks of the St. Elias range, and the lower river traverses Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park to finally arrive at the Pacific Ocean.
In 1994, in recognition of its extraordinary scenic and wildlife values the area was named a United Nations' Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, placing Tatshenshini in a league with the great wildlife reserves in Kenya and the Grand Canyon.
The park's earliest residents were the Tlingit and Tuchone First Nations. The Tlingit moved into the area from the coast and the Tuchone arrived from the interior to fish the area's abundant salmon runs. Pictographs carved into rocks along the rivers edge by these early people still remain today. The Champagne-Aishihik First Nation, descendants of the Tlingit and Tuchone who first reached the area, still live near Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park and play an important role in its management.
Located in far northwestern BC, tucked into a triangle of land between the Yukon and Alaska, Tatshenshini-Alsek was one of the last areas of British Columbia to be mapped and explored. Indeed, as recently as 1958 maps of the area showed no details and charted it as ‘unexplored territory'. Around that time the first geological exploration for minerals took place in the area. Significant copper deposits were found in the vicinity of Windy Craggy Mountain, in the middle of the Tatshenshini region, but at the time given the remoteness of the area no action was taken in developing the deposits.
In the mid-1970s two companies, Sobek and Canadian River Expeditions, began rafting the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers for the first time. A fast-growing and world-class river rafting industry developed and the Tatshenshini-Alsek gained a reputation as the finest wilderness rafting river in the world because of its exceptional scenery, which featured huge mile-wide rivers, 4,500 meter (15,000 foot) peaks, glaciers and icebergs. Despite the area's fast growing international popularity with rafters it was still relatively unknown to British Columbians.
In the mid-1980s a proposal surfaced to develop Windy Craggy peak into a huge open-pit mine. Associated with this proposed mine was an access road which would go right down the Tatshenshini River.
"A fast-growing and world-class river rafting industry developed and the Tatshenshini-Alsek gained a reputation as the finest wilderness rafting river in the world because of its exceptional scenery..."
By this point Johnny Mikes, president of the Wilderness Tourism Council and owner of Canadian River Expeditions, was growing very concerned that the world class values of the transboundary Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers would be lost. He approached Ric Careless , who was then Executive Director of the Wilderness Tourism Council, and encouraged him to visit the area. When Careless did travel to the river in the summer of 1989, survey lines (without permits) were already in place for the proposed mine access road and planes were flying in major equipment. It was clear that development was going to happen virtually immediately. It was also clear to Careless that the area was truly world class, the finest wilderness area he had ever seen.
Careless and Mikes recognised the need to quickly mount a campaign to protect the area, and as a result in late 1989 they, along with Dona Reel, founded Tatshenshini Wild. This new conservation organization enjoyed early success in halting the development of the access road, citing that there was inadequate environmental assessment and that outstanding wilderness and grizzly bear values were at stake. This bought Tatshenshini Wild time to start building the publicity campaign to raise awareness in BC, and beyond. An early and critical alliance was established with Peter Enticknap of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Coalition. Alaskans were deeply concerned about the mine because of the plan to ship the ore to a port site in Haines, Alaska. As well, Americans began to worry that pollution and roading from the BC mine would lead to a degrading of the downstream landscape and important fish and wildlife habitat of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.
British Columbia's Tatshenshini is surrounded by U. S. and Canadian National Parks: Kluane National Park (Yukon), and Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay National Parks (Alaska). Glacier Bay National Park was first recognised by legendary American conservationist John Muir in the late 1890s, who saw Mt. Fairweather from the south side and proposed that the area should be protected. Glacier Bay National Monument was established in 1925 and was subsequently expanded a couple of times. In 1980, when the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) came through, one of the areas that was added to the U.S. Park system was an extension to Glacier Bay NP to include the American portion of the Alsek River. Ed Wayburn (then the head of U.S. Sierra Club's Alaska Committee) had just finished rafting the river and was so impressed with what he had seen that he phoned members of Congress as soon as he got off the river. Wayburn succeeded in having the Act amended to include the lower Alsek even as it was moving through Congress.
"Tatshenshini Wild enjoyed early success in halting the development of the access road, citing that there was inadequate environmental assessment and that outstanding wilderness and grizzly bear values were at stake."
By mid-1990, based to a great extent on Tatshenshini Wild research and involvement, Americans were getting quite concerned about the impacts on Glacier Bay National Park, a major trans-boundary fishery, and the area's important eagle migrations. The campaign quickly broadened beyond the leading Canadian groups opposed the development of the mine, such as Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and World Wildlife Fund, to the most powerful and influential U.S. conservation organizations U.S. In fact, Tatshenshini was the first wilderness conservation issue in Canada to go continental and by 1991 Tatshenshini International was established. This network linked together the top 50 conservation organisations in North America representing about 10 million people.
An extremely intensive campaign followed, focussed not just on Victoria and Ottawa, but also the United States, particularly the U.S. Congress, and eventually the White House, when the active involvement of then Vice-President Al Gore was enlisted. This sophisticated campaigning effort and the number of organizations involved led to an unprecedented citizen outcry. Soon the US Congress began to recognise the need to protect the river.
Eventually, then BC Premier Mike Harcourt responded by undertaking a review of the issues surrounding Tatshenshini-Alsek by the Commission on Resources and the Environment (CORE). At the end of this review it was confirmed that developing a mine in the area could be catastrophic. CORE identified 12 severe and irreparable impacts, and 85 serious impacts of the project, and concluded that there was no way to develop a mine here without devastating the trans-boundary quality of the river, its ecosystems, a downstream U.S. National Park, and an acknowledged world class wilderness area.
CORE confirmed that not only was the Windy Craggy ore deposit was located in the most earthquake active area of North America, but that the ore had up to 40% sulphide content. When this sulphide mixes with water and air it forms sulphuric acid and leaches out heavy metals. Known as acid mine drainage (AMD), is very toxic and could permanently devastate the downstream river system's salmon, grizzly bears and eagles.
The mine plan was to protect the tailings underwater behind huge dams, but the possibility of the dams failing and releasing such a toxic mixture were extremely high in the earthquake prone area. Not only were the pollution risks of a grand scale, but they were also irreversible, because not only is it impossible to halt the chemical reaction caused by AMD once it starts, AMD can endure for 10 thousand years.
"Tatshenshini was in effect the first wilderness conservation issue in Canada to go continental."
In recognition of all these environmental risks and the world class wilderness values at stake, as well as the fact that the economics of the mine were suspect, the government of BC under Premier Harcourt decided in June 1993 to protect Tatshenshini-Alsek as a Class A park. In combination with the adjoining national parks this completed the world's largest international park complex. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) then proposed the area for protection as a World Heritage Site.
Throughout the entire Tatshenshini campaign there had been strong opposition to the park proposal from the mining industry in Canada and beyond. This opposition intensified after the park's designation when the initiative to grant UN World Heritage Status to the area began to move forward. By this point though, a much closer working relationship had developed between conservationists and the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation. Subsequently, the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation became supportive of the protection and World Heritage Site concepts, and later successfully negotiated a state-of-the-art Co-management Agreement with the BC Government. As a result of this added support the area was established as a World Heritage Site in December 1994.
The 1999 discovery in one of the park's ice fields of an ancestral ‘iceman', determined to be over 500 years old and called Kwaday Dšn Sinchi by the Champagne-Aishihik (meaning 'long ago person found'), has emphasised the cultural importance of the area, in addition to its world class ecological and scenic values.
"In recognition of all these environmental risks, as well as the fact that the economics of the mine were suspect, the government of BC under Premier Harcourt decided in June 1993 to protect Tatshenshini-Alsek as a Class A park."