Benaroya Hall’s “National Geographic Live!” 2014 lecture series will include talks on wolves in Idaho, extreme environments in other parts of the world (erupting volcanoes, howling tornadoes) and the possibility of life existing on other planets.
But first it kicks off with an animated speaker from closer to home: National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis, based in Vancouver, B.C.
Davis, 60, was recently appointed a tenured professor in anthropology at the University of British Columbia with a mandate to focus on cultures and ecosystems at risk. Those concerns are central to his new book, “The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass” (Greystone, 146 pp., $45).
The adversaries in this battle are the Tahltan, a First Nations people living in a vast and sparsely populated wilderness in the northwest corner of British Columbia, and a steady stream of oil and mining companies that want to exploit the region’s resources.
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This classic David-and-Goliath story is also the subject of Davis’ lecture.
“David” has won at least one round of the fight. After Tahltan-led protests, Shell withdrew its plans to do coal-bed methane extraction in the area known as the Sacred Headwaters, where the Stikine, Skeena and Nass — all major salmon rivers — have their source. But Imperial Metals, a Canadian mining company, has plans for copper and gold extraction nearby, scheduled to start in May, according to the company’s website.
Since 1987, Davis and his wife have had a summer home in the threatened area. Their lodge on Ealue Lake, where they raised their daughters, borders directly on Imperial Metals’ property.
In a phone interview last month, Davis (“Into the Silence,” “The Serpent and the Rainbow”) spoke passionately about the showdown. He also cited his strong ties to the region. He was born in Vancouver and went to high school on Vancouver Island.
“I’m really very much a child of the West,” he says. “I spent all my years in high school and college working as a park ranger, logging or fighting fires in the bush here.”
In the 1970s, he found himself in the far north of B.C. when he became the first park ranger in the newly created Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park, just north of the Sacred Headwaters.
The B.C. government, he explains, had no idea what lay within the park and wanted him to create a database for potential park users.
“So for two four-month seasons, my job was basically to map every river and climb every peak and track all the main traditional native trails. … It was while I was up there that I fell in love with Tahltan culture.”
The spectacular landscape — done handsome justice in photographs by Carr Clifton and other photographers in the “Sacred Headwaters” book — so captivated Davis that he wanted to raise his family there for at least part of the year.
(Their other base, until Davis’ recent UBC appointment, was Washington, D.C., where National Geographic has its headquarters.)
“In retrospect, the first 15 years were bliss,” he says of his family’s summers up north.
For the last 10 years, however, much of his time has been taken up with the Tahltan’s efforts to keep out the mining and oil interests.
He doesn’t expect a total ban on industrial development. The hope, instead, is that any development will be more carefully thought out and that some of the pristine areas will be protected.
Indeed, Davis has some surprising attitudes on these issues that date back to his park-ranger days.
“I’m not an ideologue,” he says. “I’m interested in what I think is the truth. For example, when Greenpeace came into the Spatsizi in the 1970s to shut down trophy hunting, their rationale and their activities were so egregious that on principle I quit my job as a park ranger and hired on as a big-game hunting guide.”
Some readers will also be surprised to learn Davis is an adviser for Hunt Oil Co., helping it develop oil wells in Peru in an eco-conscious way.
“We need to continue to exploit natural resources for obvious reasons,” he says. “But at the same time we also need — and can — ensure that we do not compromise our patrimony.”
The reaction of the Tahltan elders to the “Sacred Headwaters” book, he notes, has been fascinating and moving.
“They almost hold it to their chest like some kind of precious thing. And it’s because of two things. First of all, they’ve never seen their own country so beautifully portrayed, not because they don’t travel on the land, but they don’t get to go up in helicopters at magic hour.”
Second, the quotes from the elders that Davis uses as epigraphs to the book’s chapters have huge meaning for them: “Not one of those elders has ever had their voices placed in print in that kind of format. And it’s very empowering.”
The main thing about the book, he says, is that it’s “a celebration of the place and an account of this amazing gesture of, essentially, civil disobedience.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org