Editorial: WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO FINALLY SAVE THE SKAGIT RIVER?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Upper Smitheram Valley in the Donut Hole - Wilderness Committee file photo.
Upper Smitheram Valley in the Donut Hole - Wilderness Committee file photo.

After public outcry saved this natural gem, proposed development jeopardizes it again, Ken Farquharson and Tom Perry write.

Imperial Metals, the company responsible for the 2014 tailings pond collapse at Mount Polley, has applied this year for an exploration permit in the area of the Skagit Valley known as the Donut Hole.

Fifty years ago, one of B.C.’s longest running and most important environmental battles commenced when the public learned that our provincial government had sold water rights to the Canadian Skagit Valley to Seattle’s municipal electrical utility.

For power worth $4 million in annual savings over its next cheapest alternative, Seattle City Light would pay British Columbia a mere $35,000 per annum. In turn, Canadians would have seen one of our finest low-level wilderness valleys, and its unusual ecological features drowned under 37 metres of seasonal reservoir.
Seattle paved the way for High Ross Dam by appealing for urgently needed electrical power in the darkest days of the Second World War. But it did not follow through with a plan to raise the dam until 1967, when it secured its sweetheart deal secretly from B.C.’s Social Credit government.

Those were the days of unquestioned and glorified resource exploitation. Completion of the Bennett Dam was about to inundate almost 3,000 square kilometres of the Rocky Mountain Trench. And the government felt no obligation to salvage the standing timber or notify the Indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years. It was getting ready to dam the Fraser at Moran Canyon, an environmental insult that would have made this summer’s Fraser River rock slide seem trivial.

When the Skagit sellout came to light in 1969, we formed the Run Out Skagit Spoilers (ROSS) Committee. ROSS quickly became the broadest coalition of environmental and public interest groups in our history, and was backed by churches, unions, and municipal governments. Media like The Vancouver Sun, elected representatives from all Canadian parties, and literally thousands of individual citizens helped wage a 15-year campaign to save the Skagit. It was NDP premier Dave Barrett who took the first steps to stop High Ross in 1974.

Finally, the 1984 Canada-U.S. Skagit River Treaty resolved what had seemed an intractable dispute, by an agreement to avoid High Ross Dam. This allowed for preservation of the Canadian Skagit River within Skagit Valley Provincial Park. With the adjacent Manning Provincial Park, the Skagit is now among our most accessible conservation areas.

A unique benefit of the 1984 treaty was the establishment of SEEC, the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission. Appointed and funded jointly by Seattle and the government of B.C., SEEC was given the mandate in the Skagit drainage upstream of Ross dam to:

  • ¦ Conserve and protect wilderness and wildlife habitat;
  • ¦ Enhance recreational opportunities;
  • ¦ Acquire mineral or timber rights consistent with conservation and recreational purposes.

One of SEEC’s major challenges since 1985 has been to purchase Imperial Metals’ Giant Copper property located on Silverdaisy Ridge in the uppermost reaches of the Skagit drainage. Imperial’s claims lie in an area of open Crown land, surrounded by Skagit and Manning provincial parks, colloquially known as the Donut Hole.

Because of prior mineral claims, the Donut Hole was temporarily excluded from these parks. Yet for its scenic values and undisturbed habitat for mountain goats, grizzly bears, and spotted owls, the Ministry of Environment always intended to add it to the protected areas. SEEC began formal evaluation of the Giant Copper claims in 2016.

Now, a half-century after the public of both countries forced governments to protect an environment gem, who would have expected new trouble to arise? Yet our previous and current B.C. governments have acted in ways that appear to breach the Skagit River Treaty.

First the Liberals allowed B.C. Timber Sales to take bids in 2017 for clearcut logging in the Skagit Donut Hole. After allowing the permitted logging in 2018, Forest Minister Doug Donaldson faced such intense opposition that he has now suspended further timber sales, but has yet to confirm they will cease.

Next Imperial Metals, the company responsible for the 2014 tailings pond collapse at Mount Polley, applied this year for a new exploration permit in the Donut Hole. Ultimately, Imperial could propose a mine in the headwaters of an international river, whose downstream reaches are critical to Puget Sound chinook salmon, critical food for endangered southern orcas.

Not surprisingly, B.C.’s Ministry of Mines, Energy and Petroleum Resources has been flooded with protests against mineral exploration in the Skagit headwaters. This includes local B.C. First Nations and downstream U.S. tribes, the governor of Washington, the City of Seattle, virtually every B.C. and Washington environmental organization, and the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission.

SEEC believes that B.C. has already breached the Skagit River Treaty by the 2017 Donut Hole timber sales. One can only imagine the cross-border furor that a mine proposal would arouse.

Imperial Metals has to date spurned diplomatic approaches by SEEC to purchase its tenures for fair market value. Now it wants further exploration in the Skagit. But does Imperial’s name belie its thinking? Does the company believe it can drive up the price of tenures, when realistically, it cannot develop a mine on this celebrated international river? What lessons has Imperial, or for that matter, our provincial government, learned from the Mount Polley disaster?

We think it is time for the NDP government to get real.

South of the border, major investments since 1980 in salmon enhancement for the lower Skagit have helped it to become the major producer of chinook salmon for Puget Sound.

Given the endangered southern orcas’ problems arising from scarcity of chinook, and B.C. and Washington’s shared responsibility for orca survival, many Americans are incredulous that B.C. might agree to the development of the Giant Copper property, given the potential downstream risks.

SEEC, supported by Seattle and NGOs and public from both sides of the border, has advised both Premier John Horgan and Mines Minister Michelle Mungall of its opposition to the exploration permit.

It has sought the co-operation of her ministry to help negotiate a fair price for Imperial’s property. To date, neither government nor Imperial have responded positively.

The government’s imminent decision on the exploration permit will determine whether the Skagit will remain a thorn in the political flesh of B.C. governments, or whether the consensual direction for resource management envisaged in the 1984 Skagit treaty will be honoured.

It was the NDP under the late Barrett and his colleagues that first moved to save the Skagit. Will Barrett’s successors prove capable of the same foresight and political courage? 

Ken Farquharson is a retired civil engineer and former SEEC commissioner who chaired the Run Out Skagit Spoilers committee from 1969 to 1985; Tom Perry was co-ordinator of ROSS and a former NDP cabinet minister.

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