Changing Planet

Sacred Headwaters

“In a rugged knot of mountains in northern British Columbia lies a spectacular valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers—the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass—are born in close proximity. Now, against the wishes of all First Nations, the British Columbia government has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development. Imperial Metals proposes an open-pit copper and gold mine, called the Red Chris mine, and Royal Dutch Shell wants to extract coal bed methane gas across a tenure of close to a million acres.” – Wade Davis, Explorer-in-Residence of the National Geographic Society and iLCP Photographer

Moose, Ealue Lake, British Columbia, 2010

Q& A with Photographer Paul Colangelo

Q: How long have you been focused on this region and how have you been traveling ?

I first traveled to the Sacred Headwaters two years ago to photograph an amazing woman named Ali Howard who swam the Skeena River from source to ocean (355 miles!) over 28 days to raise awareness and unite the river communities. The moment I hiked into the valley of the Skeena Headwaters, I knew that this was a place with a story that should be told. One of the challenges of documenting the Sacred Headwaters is its size and inaccessibility. I did a lot of aerial photography from helicopters to convey just how vast, rugged and pristine a region this is. Helicopters were also used to be dropped off at otherwise inaccessible locations, such as the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine to photograph mountain goats and Todagin Mountain to spend a week photographing Stone’s sheep. Canoeing, rafting and of course backpacking for miles were needed to access other locations, but the newest method for me was traveling by horseback. I stopped into a cabin to ask directions to a fishing camp, and the next thing I knew I was joining the cabin’s owner on an eight-day horseback trip to clear their hunting trails. First time on a horse, but hopefully not the last!

Outfitter Bobby Brush leads his horse on a hunting trip, British Columbia, 2010

Q: What inspires you about the Sacred Headwaters, why have you dedicated so much time to photographing this landscape and people? What are the challenges to telling the story of a landscape at risk?

When I first traveled to the Sacred Headwaters, everything I knew about it I had learned from environmental organizations, namely the landscapes, rivers, wildlife and their need for protection. It wasn’t until I spent time with the Tahltan did I understand that it’s really a story of respect. There’s a David and Goliath situation where a Tahltan group led by Elders, the Klabona Keepers, are pitted against the world’s second largest corporation in a fight for the right to decide what happens on their land. I was amazed to hear what had been accomplished. Through a 254-day sit-in in government offices and road blocks that ended in their arrest, the Elders were able to put a temporary moratorium on Shell’s coalbed methane development in the Sacred Headwaters. The Tahltan Elders risked and achieved a great deal on an issue that I believe in, so I wanted to do anything I could to help.

The challenges of telling the story of a landscape at risk are working among the politics and attempting to tell the story as objectively as possible. There are many parties and conflicting interests, and as a photojournalist I want to capture the complete picture. Navigating this landscape of beliefs can be a delicate task.

Iskut River meanders, British Columbia, 2010

The Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition

The Mission was to generate a portfolio of images to help derail plans to lift a 4-year moratorium and develop harmful mining projects in the region.

The Sacred Headwaters RAVE was launched with partner Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition (SWCC) to produce a portfolio of stunning images of the Sacred Headwaters of (the birthplace of 3 of British Columbia’s greatest salmon rivers – the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass) for a photo book with author and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis. The book will be used as a tool by iLCP, SWCC, other local conservation groups and Wade Davis to derail proposed mining projects that would destroy the Sacred Headwaters. The book will be published in October 2011 right before the moratorium on mining in the Sacred Headwaters is lifted.

Moose, Ealue Lake, British Columbia, 2010

The Book

The Sacred Headwaters, a visual feast and plea to save an extraordinary region in North America for future generations, is illustrated by a collection of photographs by Carr Clifton and members of the International League of Conservation Photographers including; Claudio Contreras, Paul Colangelo, Joe Riis and Wade Davis. It portrays the splendor of the region. These photographs are supplemented by images from other professionals who have worked in the region, including Sarah Leen of the National Geographic.

Wade Davis‘ compelling text, which describes the region’s beauty, the threats to it, and the response of native groups and other inhabitants, is complemented by the voices of the Tahltan elders. The Tahltan are a Canadian First Nations Tribe. The inescapable message is that no amount of methane gas can compensate for the sacrifice of these sacred headwaters.

The Sacred Headwaters will be published in October, 2011 and can be pre-ordered!


Wade Davis is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. He holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among fifteen indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6000 botanical collections.



Paul Colangelo is a photographer specializing in wildlife, environmental issues, and how we view our world through science and culture. Committed to conservation, Paul documents environmental issues with the goal of raising awareness and support. His recent work on the Sacred Headwaters shed light on this remote region in northern British Columbia and raised international support for its protection.


The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. iLCP is a Fellowship of more than 100 photographers from all around the globe. As a project based organization, iLCP coordinates Conservation Photography Expeditions to get world-renowned photographers in the field teamed with scientists, writers, videographers and conservation groups to gather visual assets that are used to create conservation communications campaigns to foment conservation successes. iLCP is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Support our work at this link.
  • stephanie

    Every time I read of a new sacred area being selected for the “chopping block” of development I am absolutely sickened. I feel completely helpless to stop it.

  • Laura Sherman

    When will enough be enough for gas, oil and electricity big cats? Hasn’t the Golf Oil Spill, the Exxon Oils Spill and numerous others been enough to open the publics greedy eyes? How many of the Mother Earth animals must die to prove to the people that chemicals and wildlife don’t mix. I wish I would have been born in a time when they hadn’t even produced oil and gas. Then I would be able to sleep at night not having nightmares of what is to come…………

  • beny

    leave it to the big mogul energy companies and the politicians to keep on destroying and draining us out of everything all they think about is the greed

  • parker

    i remember an similar incident yrs ago where the corps. who wanted the land were required the signatures of all of the tribal elders ah… if not the chief to decide legally what they wanted to do with the land they owned. unfortunately i saw many signatures. beautiful land still i’m sure.

  • steve keefe

    The powers to be have all the power they need but don’t have enough money and along the way destroy natural resources because they can don’t feel helpless invision things the way they were intended and then pay close attention patience

  • chris hollway

    i like this whole thinggggg.

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