VICTORIA - The remote alpine birthplace of three majestic, salmon-rich rivers has been saved from potentially harmful oil-and-gas development in a remote area of northwestern British Columbia.
The B.C. government announced a deal Tuesday with Shell Canada Ltd., and the Tahltan Central Council that will see Shell withdraw its plans to explore and drill for coalbed methane gas in a 4,000-square-kilometre region known as the Klappan at the confluence of the Stikine, Nass and Skeena rivers.
In 2005, some members of the Tahltan were arrested during protests in the area, which the First Nation calls the Sacred Headwaters.
Shell drilled three exploration wells starting in 2004, but in 2008, agreed to an amendment of its petroleum and natural-gas tenure, which suspended further exploration activities in the area for a maximum of four years.
The suspended exploration period was set to expire Tuesday, but the government made it permanent with its announcement.
The Klappan area is located about 400 kilometres north of Smithers and includes few inhabited communities other than Telegraph Creek and Dease Lake.
Rugged mountains border the vast alpine valley where the three rivers cut meandering paths through the high-altitude marshland on their way to becoming sheer forces of nature that include canyons, rapids and critical salmon habitat.
Known for their abundant salmon runs and wilderness grizzly, wolf, caribou and moose, the three rivers and their territory offer spiritual, cultural and wilderness significance to the Tahltan and Iskut people of the area.
"Overjoyed and deeply moved. I can't even begin to tell you how happy I am and how honoured I am on behalf of the Tahltan Nation," Annita McPhee, president of the Tahltan Central Council, said in an interview from Terrace, B.C.
"It's a huge honour for our nation to have this beautiful area protected."
She said the Klappan is one of the most sacred and important areas for her people and she acknowledged Shell for its decision to give up its development plans.
"In 2005, we were so afraid of what was going to happen to this area," said McPhee.
But she said Tahltan elders committed themselves to protecting the area from development, which could have resulted in the drilling of up to 4,000 exploration wells, the building of 3,000 kilometres of roads and the potential pollution of the rivers.
The Tahltan said they were prepared to risk arrest as they enlisted a national and international campaign that included conservation and environmental groups.
"I can't even imagine what would have happened in that area, and I want to applaud Shell for giving up their tenure in that area, and us not having to worry about that in the future," said McPhee.
In addition to giving up its petroleum tenures, Shell plans to build a new water recycling project to support its gas developments in northeastern B.C., which includes $20 million in royalty credits from the provincial government.
Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman said the agreement involved joint negotiations between the province, Tahltan and Shell.
He said energy companies usually prefer to hold their tenures for years to take advantage of future market changes, but Shell decided it was to their advantage to turn them back to the province.
"In this particular case, they saw it as a real benefit to building relationships with First Nations in the northwest and the northeast where they want to do a lot of activity and have relationships," said Coleman.
Shell spokesman David Williams said the company now plans to move to northeastern B.C. where the area is more accessible to exploration and the infrastructure is already in place.
"We're very pleased to have found common ground with the Tahltan," he said.
Shell views its priorities now in northeastern B.C. where oil and gas operations have been ongoing for 60 years, Williams said.
ForestEthics spokeswoman Karen Tam Wu said worldwide and local pressure by First Nations and environmental groups prompted Shell to take its plans elsewhere.
"The solution that they've come to is quite a creative one," she said. "It creates a win for the company and a win for the government and it gets the company out of the headwaters."
Opposition New Democrat Doug Donaldson, whose Stikine riding includes the Klappan area, called the agreement a "tremendous victory for people in the northwest, people in the north and the province in general."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said protests were against natural gas.