FLYING BY helicopter into the Klappan Valley, a colourful landscape unfurls below.
Springs, which feed into river systems bound for the Pacific, nurture fen, bog and swamp dotted with tiny evergreens woven together into patterns that look like elaborate lichen from the sky.
The helicopter lands near Beauty Camp, the base for a group of Tahltan protestors and others opposed to Fortune Minerals’ plan to develop an open pit coal mine in the area.
Beauty Camp is close by a Fortune camp, set up in July to collect environmental and other data in support of the company’s eventual application for approval to build the mine.
We’re here for a meeting between Fortune officials and the Tahltan who claim the Klappan as their territory.
Even after a decade of discussion and disagreement between the two parties it seems incredible that one of the more contentious points during the meeting was the exact location of Mount Klappan and whether it would be affected by Fortune’s proposed mine.
Sitting across from each other outside on plastic chairs, a Tahltan elder pointed around the valley to the slopes of where he said Mount Klappan was, a location where they traditionally hunt everything from goat to groundhog.
Then Fortune CEO Robin Goad spoke up, directing his arm toward a different peak from the one the elder had gestured at, and said that, in fact, Mount Klappan was farther to the east.
(In an interview several weeks after the meeting, another Fortune official, Julian Kemp, tired to explain the discrepancy in terms of one of deposits Fortune wants to mine – Lost Ridge.
“How do you define what a mountain is? I would say originally that Lost Ridge was part of a low-lying basin coal field,” said Kemp.
“Mount Klappan, which doesn’t have coal in it, that was pushed up at a different time. Where they are standing is on Lost Ridge. And the mountain they are pointing to is Mount Klappan, but we’re not mining Mount Klappan. The mine will start where Lost Ridge is and goes towards Mount Klappan.”)
It was apparent that the Tahltan gathered at the meeting weren’t at that moment interested in technical geological distinctions, and considered the slopes of Lost Ridge to be part of Mount Klappan.
While the Tahltan and environmentalists call this area the Sacred Headwaters because of its wildlife and spiritual values, mining industry publicists have coined the term “The Golden Triangle” to describe the larger region because it is rich with gold and other valuable minerals, made more accessible for extraction by receding ice.
The legends of gold brought settlers into the area in the 19th century, and the Tahltan mined obsidian for spearheads and tools.
The copper bleeds from the alpine rocks that surround the valley in shades of greens and reds, and gold sparkles in the silt in nearby creeks.
While environmentalists refer to the area as “pristine”, Goad said at the meeting that the presence of a BC Rail line decommissioned decades ago, which Fortune proposes to reconstruct in order to ship its coal, proves there has been an industrial presence in the valley for some time.
And Fortune is quick to point out that an anthracite coal mine doesn’t have the same kind of chemical tailing ponds as some other mines.
However a map of its proposed project shows a number of settling ponds for runoff, and protestors say the project will alter the face of the Klappan Valley with a five kilometre open pit.
Fortune’s investment manager Troy Nazarewicz said there is a scarcity of high quality anthracite coal, calling it “a unique and rare product that is required to make steel and process metals in a global market of constrained supply and growing demand.”
The debate goes back more than a decade now, and the Tahltan have argued that the area figures into their distant history, and is of spiritual, not economic importance.
According to Tahltan creation legend the Raven god soared up the headwaters of the Nass and the other major rivers on its final trip to create the world.
“He went up the Stikine to its headwaters, and it is said he also went up the Nass, Skeena and Taku rivers, and all the principal streams,” reads a 1919 history recorded by anthropologist James A. Teit. “He never travelled beyond the source of the rivers.”
The conflict in the Klappan is beginning to take on a legendary quality in its own right.
In the last decade, when Shell was drilling to determine if there were commercially viable quantities of coal bed methane natural gas, articles appeared in National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal reporting at length on the story of mountain people organizing an unlikely land claims victory against one of the most powerful companies in the world.
There have been startling recent events in the area. In July, shortly after Fortune began its environmental work in the Klappan, a helicopter pilot in the camp experienced what police called “a severe nervous breakdown,” and blasted holes in his helicopter, talking afterward of how pharmaceutical companies were poisoning the water.
When Shell agreed last winter to surrender its claims in the Klappan in return for royalty tax credits to be used in northeastern BC, attention shifted to Fortune, a junior mining company from London, Ontario.
It bought the Klappan project more than 10 years ago and now has a South Korean partner helping finance its long-planned application for environmental approval.
Aligned against it is the Tahltan Central Council, its allied band councils, and environmental organizations including the northwest-based Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition.
The most recent commitment made by the provincial government to work closely with the Tahltan on resource development is the Shared Decision-Making Agreement ratified in March, followed by a BC Liberal election promise to “examine the feasibility of developing a provincially designated protected area in the Klappan.”
Over the past weeks, a working group composed of members of the Tahltan and senior staff from several government offices was struck to continue examining the future of the area.
It’s been given until next March to come up with a recommendation to put forward to the government.
“Provincial environment minister Mary “Polak is working closely with senior representatives from multiple ministries, including Environment, Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations; Energy and Mines; Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation; and Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and they will consult with cabinet,” said a statement from her ministry.
Fortune is basing its coal mine plan on the province’s Cassiar Iskut-Stikine Land and Resource Management Plan of 2000 created in consultation with the Tahltan.
It noted the high quality mineral deposits in the Klappan, an area that Fortune says was not part of the agreed-upon protected areas set out in the management plan.
Based on this previous study and because the government gave them permits to do preliminary assessments, Fortune says it has a legal right to be in the valley.
The Tahltan continue to protest their presence with blockades and drum marches, saying the valley has been used since time immemorial for hunting and spiritual purposes, and recently for a children’s culture camp.
“There were some battles fought there. You will find weapons and stuff like that. I know there were some burial sites too. Once you start digging I am sure you will find a bunch of stuff,” said Tahltan band manager Ryan Franke.
Franke said the Tahltan are unanimous in wanting the Klappan protected.
“It might be the first time you will get Tahltans in the room and have them all agree. The Shell situation I think ... pretty much solidified everyone together.”
Franke said companies need to learn how to better educate people about their plans before entering Tahltan lands.