We were halfway down the Wind River when nature called.
No, not that nature, the daily one. Since this was a leave-no-trace expedition, I carried my pathetic little shovel out to a discrete patch of willow by the riverbank.
Sometimes, ecological correctness can seem demeaning, but I was doing my bit for the planet. Pulling up my pants, I noticed a fluffy flower on a sandbar. It looked like a Polish knight’s helmet.
Unconsciously, I started for this lone blossom, thinking I’d press it into a book. Then the mud began sucking me down, and I found myself almost waist deep. There was a moment of terror when I considered the possibility of becoming a fossil in the riverbed, or converted into oil over thousands of years. Sheer terror gave me the superhuman strength to lunge back to the bank.
Out on the sandbar the white flower waved—serenely unplucked—as I looked back fondly, my jeans weighed down by 50 pounds of guck, I was glad I hadn’t picked it. The Dryas drummondii is not endangered, but still, I was ashamed of my thoughtless, bizarre human desire to take the only flower on a sandbar.
Struggling to a rockier stretch of river where I could wash my jeans in the icy water, the incident made me recollect the Amazonian orchid collectors of the Victorian era. The first collector to stumble onto never-seen orchids would gather boxes of them. Then he’d torch the habitat, killing the rest, thus guaranteeing his collection’s value, though, often as not, it sank in a storm in the unpredictable Atlantic.
Later, the collectors, increasingly aware of their damage, grew more conscientious, and would only pick half the habitat, leaving the remainder to propagate. After decades the location would be reduced to a few dozen orchids. Then three or four. Until finally a good-hearted collector took them all so that they could be cultivated and propagated, and thus ‘protected.’
This is about the way our increasing human population has treated the rest of the planet. All heavily populated areas are examples of our ecological depredations. Wild tigers once roamed the banks of the Ganges. Now the locals are eating deep-fried sparrow on a stick and scooping oil for their tractors off the polluted river’s surface.
When I was in Thailand there was a great campaign to save the rhinoceros beetle, which had become a delicacy. Like shark’s fin or illegal bear paws. We’ll eat anything and everything.
Now it appears the Yukon’s miners and their handmaidens in government are eager to wreck the glorious Peel Watershed. It’s as if they can’t stand the thought of any undamaged wilderness. This region is so delicate you can still see the track caused by a single bulldozer creating a winter road more than 50 years ago.
Our greed is a disease, and a dangerous one, as anyone who has read Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress or Jared Diamond’s Collapse will know. If the human race doesn’t get its act together, our entire species will go the way of the Easter Islanders, the Greenlanders and the Khmer nation of Cambodia.
When we consider the Peel Watershed and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in daily income provided during the summer by tourism in this legendary region, and the thought of ruining that for projects as nutty as an iron mine on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, we can recognize what kind of deranged thinking we’re facing.
These kind of projects generally squeeze as much grant money out of friends in government as possible, bring in a pile of Outside workers while promising work for the local community, pollute the crap out of the place, then pull out with the money, and leave the impossible cleanup costs to the taxpayers—the historic gut and boom and crash-and-run scenario.
I wipe my table after my dinner. I don’t walk away and leave it to the taxpayers while I foul another landscape.
I would like to make a modest proposal that our eager environmentalists in the mining community create a cleanup fund to reclaim all the toxic mine sites left behind in the Yukon before they ask for the right to mine and pipeline the Yukon’s last great wilderness. Right, some chance, eh?
If you protect land you can always unprotect it, as George W. Bush proved, but when you’ve ruined a great wilderness it’s impossible to restore it.
Their desperation to open up this paradise for resource extraction and pollution reminds me of the arrogant oil tycoon on CBC a month ago, bragging about how environmentally good the oil sands were, and the thousands of acres about to be reclaimed.
In Alberta, the oil sands industry has, from 1967 to 2006, savaged 47,832 hectares of land—logged it, scraped it, created monstrous, toxic tailings ponds. This is only 14 per cent of their potential mining area. They’re just getting started.
In those 40 years these ‘sustainable mines’ have only had 104 hectares certified as reclaimed by the Alberta government (not known for its love of the ecology). That’s 0.2 per cent of the mined area. And certified ‘reclamation’ merely meant grassing over the polluted land. This is the environmental record he was bragging about—40 years of destruction?
Alberta will be paying for the oil sands for centuries, if the human race lasts that long, just as the children of the Yukon will be paying for the mines of today until the end of time.
The Snake, the Bonnet Plume, the Wind, the Hart, the Blackstone, the Ogilvie and the Peel—they should be a world heritage site, the largest intact watershed (crossed by one road) in the Arctic regions of the entire world. A treasure for humanity, for the future.
The mining industry is doing well throughout the rest of the Yukon, but no, that’s not enough. There are those walking among us who demand the right to wreck it all.
Let’s pluck that last flower!
Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His most recent book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.