The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.
A little over one year ago, communities in southern British Columbia and northwest Washington received some promising news about the future of the Skagit River, and specifically the long-term health of the river’s headwaters just north of the Canadian border. In the face of significant public pressure, the B.C. government announced that it had entered into an agreement with the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission (SEEC) to have all mining rights at the headwaters site — also known as the Donut Hole — purchased from a Canadian gold mining company called Imperial Metals and turned over to provincial oversight.
In other words, the gold exploration program slated for the Upper Skagit has been effectively quashed.
There are many good reasons for protecting this 5,800 hectare section of mountain peaks, lush valleys and rushing creeks in this north-of-the-border stretch of the North Cascades ecosystem, surrounded by B.C.’s E.C. Manning and Skagit Valley Provincial Parks. They include impacts on outdoor recreation but also the ongoing health of the larger Skagit watershed, which helps to define significant parts of the Pacific Northwest’s geography and cultural heritage.
The Skagit River’s longstanding tribal history is also a significant factor. Several tribes located in the Skagit basin — including the Swinomish, Upper Skagit and Sauk-Suiattle — voiced formal opposition to the mining project due to worries for established treaty rights for fishing and hunting in the larger watershed. The Samish Tribe also highlighted the toxic threat to the large number of bald eagles that converge on the river during the winter months to feed on salmon.
These concerns for wildlife habitat loom especially large, including the plight of northern spotted owls, which have been decimated over the years by logging and other industrial encroachments. The larger headwaters area is also prime habitat for mule deer and black bears, and it could play a central role in the proposed reintroduction of grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem south of the border.
The Skagit River also provides an important barometer for the health of migratory fish. In a 2022 press release issued by the B.C. government, SEEC USA co-chair Leo Bodensteiner noted that the upper Skagit River “transcends geographical boundaries as this watershed provides a critical corridor for salmon, steelhead and bull trout, which have protected status on both sides of the border.”
To their credit, and in the spirit of public diplomacy, governments in B.C. and Washington are increasingly vocal about the health of our shared rivers. In the same release, former B.C. premier John Horgan noted that the Skagit saga could be a precursor to productive cross-border deliberations about the Nooksack River and, in particular, ongoing concerns over flooding in the cross-border watershed. Horgan’s statement connotes a broader vision for Cascadia’s key ecologies, including the Skagit and Nooksack systems, but also the Columbia and Fraser Rivers, along with the Salish Sea.
The cross-border movement formed to oppose the Donut Hole mining project was historically significant. The coalition of environmental advocates deployed a prolific operation of media relations, government lobbying and public engagements to facilitate a larger, regional dialogue about the importance of the transboundary Skagit watershed across multiple jurisdictions in Cascadia.
But there is more to the Donut Hole saga than an alliance of conservation groups, tribal leaders, politicians and small businesses stopping a lucrative precious metals project in its track. The untold story was the establishment of an effective cross-border advocacy infrastructure that is well-equipped to foster collaborative dialogue and policy action in the borderlands and beyond — without getting hung up on national interests or differences.
The Skagit ordeal has sounded the alarm on other threats to our transboundary watersheds, including extraction projects that loom over Cascadia’s watersheds. A case in point comes from the Elk River region in Southeast B.C., where Teck Resources operates mountain-top removal coal mines. The concern here is the dispersal of mine-contaminated wastewater into the Elk and Kootenai River watersheds and the Columbia River Basin.
Another resources project of concern is the Copper Mountain Mine, which is located minutes west of Princeton, B.C. Proposed expansion of the behemoth copper site raises concerns about the cross-border Similkameen River, which flows east from the Cascades into the Okanagan River and Columbia watershed. Copper Mountain’s conventional open pit, which is easily visible from the most cursory of Google Earth visits, is located less than 50 miles from the Donut Hole.
A global appetite for precious metals and other commodities in the face of economic uncertainty means that projects like these aren’t going away. The Copper Mountain Mine is already producing roughly 100 million pounds of copper equivalent per year, and this number could rise closer to 140 million pounds in the years ahead.
The crusade to save the Donut Hole, then, might just be the opening salvo of a larger and more complex mission to protect Cascadia’s transboundary watersheds. As for the rest of the Skagit River? That story is also far from over. Hydroelectricity is produced by three dams on the river — making the Skagit a key site for Seattle’s metropolitan energy needs.
Evolving views about wildlife habitat, energy consumption, and the social value of dams themselves means that we are bound to see more debate about the river’s built industrial environment. This issue too deserves more transboundary deliberation. The Skagit River may flow in one direction, but the environmental ramifications of resources projects go both ways.
— Contributed by Derek Moscato
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