Black bear cub peaks out from behind some mossy rocks A\J

Northern Getaway

What ecotourism advocates say about the plan to divide BC with a pipeline.

A WHITE SPIRIT BEAR cub tentatively crosses a mossy log, followed closely by his black sibling. Majestic grey wolves search for salmon from a rocky, seaweed-enveloped shore at low tide. Two orca whales ply the waters at sunset. “They call this the Great Bear Rainforest,” explains Gitga’at first nation member Helen Clifton in the 2011 documentary Tipping Barrels. Then she poses a truly prescient question: “What will be great about it?”

A WHITE SPIRIT BEAR cub tentatively crosses a mossy log, followed closely by his black sibling. Majestic grey wolves search for salmon from a rocky, seaweed-enveloped shore at low tide. Two orca whales ply the waters at sunset. “They call this the Great Bear Rainforest,” explains Gitga’at first nation member Helen Clifton in the 2011 documentary Tipping Barrels. Then she poses a truly prescient question: “What will be great about it?”

Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline would deliver bitumen crude from central Alberta to the Douglas Channel in BC’s Great Bear, a crucial coastal ecosystem that represents more than a quarter of the world’s remaining temperate rainforest. “The Gitga’at and the Haisla are the only people who live in that whole territory [surrounding Douglas Channel], so very few people have had an impact on the region,” says Ian McAllister, founder and executive director of Pacific Wild conservancy group. “Because of that, it’s still very much intact and still functioning in a way that is seldom seen on the planet today. The opportunities for someone to land in Hartley Bay and to hire a first nation guide, and to be watching bears in these wild salmon rivers, to watch wolves, to see the countless species that are found in this area, it makes for an amazing, fulfilling, world-class experience.”

For more than 20 years, McAllister has helped Pacific Wild keep salmon farms out of Great Bear waters, bring international attention to the grizzly trophy hunt and establish logging-free zones. He has also helped create numerous documentaries – including Tipping Barrels, Oil in Eden and others – to encourage awareness and conservationist action in the Great Bear. While his work showcases BC’s coastline specifically as a place to be explored rather than exploited, Northern Gateway would affect more than 60 first nations territories and 1000 waterways across Western Canada.

Enbridge counters concerns with Northern Gateway’s staggering financial forecast, which includes a projected GDP growth of $270-billion over 30 years, 1150 long-term jobs and $4.3-billion in labour-related income during construction. Yet the majority of Canadians are not convinced that the potential benefits outweigh the costs, which include an 1172-km clear-cut corridor, sedimentary disturbance of a fragile salmon habitat and the risk of ecosystem devastation from leaks and spills. “In terms of conflicting values, this is the perfect storm,” admits McAllister.

Alternatives asked a number of ecotourism outfitters that operate along the proposed pipeline and tanker routes to discuss how the project will impact their businesses, well-being and the wild places that feed both. Four outfitters responded (plus one who said they support the pipeline, but refused further comment), and shared their personal insights about how Northern Gateway would change the ways they live off the land.

Michael Uehara, President, King Pacific Lodge

Creating luxurious escapes on a carbon-neutral footprint, this floating lodge has been taking its guests fishing, heli-hiking, wilderness kayaking, wildlife viewing and whale watching since 1989.

EVERYTHING WE DO has its roots in the environment and the culture of the area. We’re in the middle of the traditional territory of the Gitga’at people of the Tsimshian nation, and they’ve been using this area to sustain themselves for quite some time, so you can imagine the biodiversity and the richness. There are 25 intact watersheds that are in protection, and then also Barnard Harbour, where the Lodge is physically located. Mainly led by first nations, there’s a regime in place that ensures sustainable management of practices such as logging, mining, hydro and other activities.

For us, the issue is a tanker issue, but it’s obviously directly tied to the pipeline. It is downright frightening to look at the number of tanker incidents there are around the world, and we’re talking about putting VLCC’s [Very Large Crude Carriers] twice the size of the Exxon Valdez into waters less than half the width of Prince William Sound, where it went down. As someone who’s operated in this territory for a very long time, I’m telling you the weather is highly unpredictable, and I have great fear of the navigational perils a supertanker would face, given that it takes five kilometers to stop. We have a growing population of whales, particularly humpbacks, but also, for the first time in known memory, fin whales. There is no way the boats can navigate around the whales. The assumption is the whales will navigate around the supertankers.

If the pipeline goes through and the tankers are on the water, King Pacific Lodge won’t exist anyway. It’s wholly incompatible to sell experiences in the wilderness in conjunction with the Gitga’at of Hartley Bay with the background of supertankers going through twice a day. It just won’t work. It’ll destroy our business.”

Marven Robinson, Owner, Gitga’at Spirit Tours

Knowledgeable and experienced Gitga’at first nation guides lead year-round wilderness excursions, boasting unparalleled opportunities to see spirit bears and other majestic animals in their habitat.

TOURISM IS NOT what we see at stake, first of all. Our biggest concern in the community is for the wildlife that uses our territory – cetaceans, salmon, herring, all of the shellfish that we eat and harvest. Already the stress level in this community is really high, and the project’s not even approved.

Right now, there’s not much wave action on the shorelines or the intertidal zones. Over time, how is this going to change our beaches and what grows on the beaches, and the things that we harvest, like mussels, cockles, clams and kelp? With the amount of vessels they’re talking about, we don’t even know how it’s going to impact our seaweed beds. Is it going to change the food that is growing on the shoreline? When the wildlife comes down to feed on the shorelines, is it going to change their feeding behaviour?

We have a biologist who has done lots of work for us on the tides and currents, and on why we have bigger salmon and how that brings killer, humpback and fin whales here. We have a lot of cetaceans because of the warm waters coming off the Pacific and meeting with the cool waters, which does sort of an upwelling when they clash together. Whales and even herring go there to feed on these little nutrients. All of that is in jeopardy. Just the vessels alone are a big concern, let alone when a spill happens.

We don’t have too many places where the herring spawn, but we only harvest a little bit of what we do have, and we try moving around to different places because herring is one of the most important foods in the chain. You take that away and there’ll be no salmon. And if there’s no salmon, there’ll be no other wildlife, no bears and wolves.”

Kyla Pollard, Owner, Khas T’an Outdoor Adventure Tourism

This operator offers riding lessons that emphasize horse-owner connection, colt starting and horse development, plus guided hiking tours using existing native trails and boat tours featuring authentic aboriginal pictographs.

THERE IS A PATCH on the road we utilize that is complete wilderness – we often have deer, coyotes and moose – and the pipeline is actually going to cut right through that. Obviously that is going to completely impact our business from a training and experience perspective, and also potentially impact wildlife populations.

When we asked to receive a list of products that will be coming and going out of the pipelines and through the pump station, we didn’t even understand what some of the products were. Most of them, I believe, will be petroleum-based. If anything spilled, it would go into our water system, which is one of the hugest selling points of Fort St. James, Stuart Lake and the surrounding freshwater. Everything’s going to be automated by computer systems – they’re not even going to have a person there. If [a spill] were to occur during the winter months, we’re pretty sure they’re not going to be able to clean it up. If it happened in the summer months, it could take them a couple of days before they even get people on the ground assessing and addressing the spill.

I live here for the stars at night, the fresh water, the beautiful wilderness and everything that exists in it, and our flourishing cultural heritage. This project does nothing but put that at risk. We are just not convinced by the material that Enbridge has provided that they’re going to be able to adequately protect those things.

So we’re standing up, but we’re feeling really disheartened by the joint review panel process and the fact that Harper has given us the impression it’s a done deal. The federal government is really taking a huge risk if they do go forward. Even if the project does get approved, we’re going to fight until the end.”

Mike Kuhnert, Owner, Timberwolf Tours

In addition to training their multilingual guides in environmental stewardship, this outfitter leads canoeing, hiking, camping and sightseeing treks into the Western Canadian wilderness.

WE LIVE IN SPRUCE GROVE, but we offer tours in the Rocky Mountains and all over Western Canada, up to the Yukon and along the West Coast. We donate five dollars from every booking to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society because we make use of the national and provincial parks. We bring our people there and explore it with them. Of course, we are environmentally very conscious. We try to instill this in our guests and be a good example.

I don’t think that the the pipeline will directly influence our operation. It’s just that many of our clients are European – French, German and British, mostly – and they know very well what’s happening in Canada. Unfortunately, we are getting a pretty bad reputation when it comes to the environment. They hear about the tar sands development, fracking for natural gas and logging, and some people just don’t want to come here because they think our rivers are polluted from oil and tar sands.

Our reputation overseas is becoming tarnished, and if a leak or spill ever happens, of course it would be just terrible for us. That is my biggest concern, because Alberta and British Columbia don’t do enough, I think, to do the right thing environmentally. Promises of growth and job creation are the excuses that governments use to approve these kinds of megaprojects. The large companies seem to [believe they] have a God-given right to make huge profits, and the shareholders seem to [believe they] have a right to expect big payouts. The provinces should insist that only the best technologies and only the best environmental practices are used before supporting a new project, otherwise it should be rejected. Why not invest all this energy and oil and money into finding alternatives for oil?”

Chelsea Gutzman is a former A/J editorial intern, now working on a post-grad degree in journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.