Wade Davis, In Depth

Wade Davis | BCBusiness

The anthropologist and explorer-in-residence of the National Geographic Society on why northern B.C. will be global tourism’s next big destination. If we don’t muck it up

You recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Kathmandu, Palau, Laos, Maldives, Rwanda, Botswana and Spain. What was it for?
It was the 125th anniversary of National Geographic so some of our trustees and supporters came on a private jet that travelled to everywhere the main explorers of the National Geographic are doing their research, and because I’m the explorer-in-residence who deals with culture around the world, I was the lecturer for the entire trip.

We flew from London to Oman with Fred Hiebert, who is an archaeologist and National Geographic fellow. From Oman we went to Kathmandu and Bhutan and were joined by Johan Reinhard [who recovered the Ice Maiden, an Inca mummy on Peru’s Mount Ampato]. From there we flew off with Sylvia Earle—she’s the great oceanographer—to Palau, then Sylvia came back with us as far as Laos. We flew from Laos to the Maldives and then to Botswana, where we joined Beverly and Dereck Joubert, the great cat experts who have done their work there for years in the Okavango Delta. We also were with my good friend Spencer Wells, the geneticist who has a genographic project in the Kalahari with the San bushmen, which we now know from studies of the Y chromosome are, in essence, the oldest culture in the world. From there we flew up to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas with a primatologist who’s an acolyte of Jane Goodall.

So, through the Geographic travel office I’ve become very familiar with the high-end traveller business, promoting and celebrating travel and also trying to—in the best sense of the word—regulate travel so we can move towards sustainability and low impact.

The tourism industry appears to have really caught your attention the last few years.
Travel is the biggest industry on the planet right now. The total capitalization of every mining company in the world does not add up to a trillion dollars, yet the global travel business is a $4.5-trillion business, a huge employer. Increasingly where money is made in the travel industry is, for better or for worse, at the high end. And what you notice on this high-end circuit is some of these destinations are becoming very well-trodden and quite worn out. Angkor Wat is now flooded with visitors; places like the Serengeti begin to feel like game parks. So what that high-end sophisticated traveller is seeking is a novel experience in a truly authentic and inspiring landscape with a strong cultural component.

I do, from time to time, guiding for my good friends the Collingwood brothers, who have a guide outfit territory in Spatsizi. We had eight or nine very well established and successful Canadians join us on one outing—these are prominent surgeons, professors, bankers, and collectively there seemed to be no place on the planet that one of them or several of them hadn’t been, except northern Canada and Northern B.C., in particular. And when they experienced the Spatsizi and sacred headwaters their jaws simply dropped and they said, “I can’t believe I’ve lived my life in Vancouver without even knowing that this world of wonder exists in my own backyard.”

You believe we have an authentic destination in Northern B.C., in particular in Spatsizi and the Sacred Headwaters of the Stikine Valley. If we can bring the masses here, how do we protect it from being overrun?
If you look at the Grand Canyon of Colorado, 27,000 people raft it within the national park every year. Yet, as you pull up on a beach you could readily indulge the illusion or the dream that you’re the first person to land there because the national park has been very careful to allow the guides themselves to regulate the flow and use of the beaches. Every party sweeps the beach for what they call micro-trash. So if you were around a camp stove and you bite into a potato chip and a crumb falls, you better pick it up or you’re going to hear about it. But the interesting thing is those high-end, intensely used landscapes are dealing, literally, with millions of people a year. We’re on the other extreme in the north where our visitations are literally measured on a single hand. So there’s a long way to go before we have to be concerned about places like the Spatsizi or the grand canyon of the Stikine being overrun with individuals. The challenge like anything else is a chicken-and-egg situation. Until you have the infrastructure there, you can’t attract that high-end clientele.

And this is where Imperial Metals’ proposed open-pit Red Chris Mine comes in.
My concern about the Red Chris Mine on Todagin Mountain is, first of all, I think the mine should be underground in that kind of country given that the mountain is a wildlife sanctuary and home to the largest population of Stone sheep on the planet. But that aside, what I find disturbing is the actual geographical location of that mine. It happens to sit on top of a mountain that is literally a sentinel in the sky hovering over the nine pristine lakes of the headwaters of the Iskut. Were you to take a dart and guide it to the epicentre of the Stikine drainage—or were you to pick the one place where you’d put the next Banff Springs Hotel or Jasper [Park] Lodge—it would be Tattoga Lake. And Tattoga Lake by fluke of geography—and geology, I suppose—sits literally at the base of Todagin Mountain. So we’re literally taking the place that would be the location of where high-end tourism could develop—and will develop, if given the chance—and we’re compromising that to put yet another copper and gold open-pit mine. It really is like drilling for oil in the Sistine Chapel.

But you’re not against mining and industrialization, per se.
My position is not that mining is bad; mining is a necessity. This is not coming from some kind of rabid position of anti-development. I mean, I paid for college by working as a logging engineer for MacMillan Bloedel, for God’s sake. But bad mining practice is a luxury we can no longer indulge in a province with such competing values.

If you could implement cultural guidelines to go alongside environmental guidelines for these mines, what would they look like?
The first issue is to address what the cultural needs are of the First Nations—and they’re the only ones who can do that. But certainly the issue of compensation is really paramount for First Nations. Until this point we’ve been toying around with the idea of compensation and for the most part it’s come in the guise of a certain number of employees generally in low-trained endeavours—maintenance contracts, catering contracts, janitorial services and so on—and we have yet to really address the possibility of true flows of royalties to these First Nations. We do need to ask how many mines—not whether they go in or don’t go in—but how many mines, at what pace, at what cost to the environment, and, critically, for whose benefit.

Eskay Creek Mine of Barrick in Tahltan territory is a good example of an underground mine that went into production, ended production and by all accounts, ecologically it was exemplary. In the course of 12-15 years of production it drew from the ground something like 400 tonnes of gold, 5,000 tonnes of silver, which in today’s valuation would be worth something like $25 billion. And yet during that entire time the Iskut, the Tahltan native development corporation, had contracts for about $135 million, which mostly went to the kind of wages and employment I just mentioned, but nothing went to building up the infrastructure of the community. I’m not saying that my friends in Iskut shouldn’t have employment—on the contrary. But the jobs, per se, can create imbalances within the community. Those wages paid out to an individual will never be the foundation for building a healthy community or addressing some of the challenges and agonies that these communities have faced because of their history.

You’ve aligned forces with Lindblad Expeditions, which is expanding into Canada this year with tours that circumnavigate Newfoundland and head into Nunavut and the Arctic. You said you’d like to take Lindblad to Haida Gwaii next.
Sven Lindblad is a great friend of mine and his dad, Lars, was something of a mentor. I first worked as a naturalist on the Lindblad ships when I was in university. My day job is to travel everywhere, and where do I go to retreat? It’s not an accident that I go to the Sacred Headwaters of the Stikine to spend my summers, which I’ve done every summer for virtually 35 years. I consider it home, but more importantly I go there because I think it’s the single most beautiful place on the planet. That’s why I want to be part of the Lindblad effort and the Geographic effort, to draw the entire lens of the world to Canada. We’ve got vast spaces that can absorb the multitudes.