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Skiing the pipeline

The environmental risks of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project are too large to be measured. Even by skiers.

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Sabourin has guided for 30 years, rafting, fishing and heli-skiing the world over. His life is intimately tied to rhythms of the land, yielding the perspective of someone who knows how special B.C. is and how unspecial it could easily become. "We're being bullied by Alberta and Ottawa into thinking (ENG) is the best thing ever. But this province is dependent on tourism and we have to maintain that," he reflects. "Look what Albertans have done to their province. It's a nightmare. I pioneered guiding on the Slave River back in the '80s. Then I began hearing how First Nations there were suffering from bad air and bad water. Now the Chippewyan have lost everything and been completely disregarded."

On the ground, feelings about megaprojects are rarely lukewarm, either from those potentially in their way or those who bristle at opposition to anything concerning a profit motive and potential jobs. It's increasingly, and oddly, polar: one side requests an holistic view that includes community consultation, responsible development, and future-focused policy while the other's quest for simplification offers little beyond facile, uninformed and wrong-headed conclusions: "Heliskiing? That uses oil. Plus you drove here, so you hypocrites actually need pipelines," one might hear. "Of course," counters the other combatant in this tired pas de deux, "we all need oil the way things are currently structured, but some of us — individuals, collectives or businesses — try to offset that use, and would like to reduce our reliance in the future. That requires planning for it. Now."

The current argument seems to be one of reactionary versus measured economics, though it's spun by industry and the federal government to be precisely the opposite. Be that as it may, as you rise up through levels of organization and governance you usually encounter more nuanced views. Not so much around Northern Gateway.

"Officially we have no opinion until the Joint Review Panel (on ENG) announces its decision. But unofficially the tourism industry is freaking out. Nothing can make it safe. A hundred tugboats couldn't protect a supertanker from disaster," a local tourism director relayed to me without a moment's hesitation. "Just hearing the idea it sounds crazy; doubly so when you consider geology, geography and biology of the region. Add in the risk details, lack of economic benefit, and (Canada's) need to wind down the oil sands and build toward a post-carbon economy and it looks even more insane."

The words are indeed clear and measured, but they coalesce into a familiar and singular audio: the sound of someone who feels no one is listening. Who knows that the much thinner strain of a shortsighted minority who support radical resource extraction and pipelines is the only one that governments and Enbridge can hear. A literal and figurative voice in the wilderness.

"There's only one reason to do something so utterly, totally mad and irresponsible," he concludes, rubbing a thumb across the first two fingers of his right hand. "To make money for the corporation proposing it."