Environmentalists from DC to California are praising last week's State Department decision to delay approval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline -- a move that could kill the project once and for all. But in Western Canada, where activists have been battling the massive tar sands development at the head of the pipeline for decades, the fight is nowhere near over.
In fact, at an impromptu sideline meetup at the APEC Summit in Hawaii this past weekend, Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty scolded Pres. Barack Obama for delaying the Keystone project, and reminded him that the US is not the only oil-buyer in the world market.
The delay, Flaherty said, "may mean we may have to move quickly to ensure we can sell our oil to Asia through British Columbia." He was referring to a pipeline proposal that is extremely controversial in Canada but virtually unknown here -- the Enbridge oil company's Northern Gateway, which would pump tar sands bitumen 731 miles to the coast of northwestern British Columbia, where it would be put on supertankers destined for China.
A week earlier, on Sunday Nov. 5, while 10,000 people encircled the White House to protest the Keystone XL, judges at the prestigious Banff Mountain Film Festival were on stage giving an award to a powerful documentary about the Northern Gateway and Alberta's oil-sands strip-mines, 520 miles to the northeast.
The film, Spoil, takes place in the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the wildest pieces of land on earth. The Northern Gateway's proposed path takes it through a sensitive section of the Great Bear, and, according to the film, threatens the livelihoods of the people of the Gitga'at First Nation. It also could destroy the habitat of the Kermode bear -- an extremely rare, all-white creature also known as the spirit bear.
Trip Jennings, who directed and edited the film, says the existence of the spirit bear was a secret that the Gitga'at rarely spoke of, even among themselves. "They knew what the trappers had done for centuries," Jennings said in an interview last week. "So it became a taboo passed down from the elders--if they happened to see a spirit bear they kept it to themselves."
The Giga'at were at first reluctant to make the spirit bear the symbol of their quest to protect its (and their) home. But as Giga'at leader and guide Marvin Robinson explains in Spoil, the prospect of supertankers plying their narrow intercoastal waterways moved his community to allow the mysterious, charismatic animal to become "the icon for the whole pipeline issue."
Ian McCallister, who lives on an island in the Great Bear and heads the BC-based environmental group Pacific Wild, has worked with the Gitga'at for more than 20 years--when he first arrived, the place was officially known as the Midcoast Timber Supply Area--and it's largely through his and his wife Karen's efforts that it has won protection from logging and open-net fish-farms.
"This place is being viewed in a much different light than it was 20 years ago," McCallister says. "It was a place to extract [British Columbia's] raw resources; today it's a place to celebrate its natural beauty, its ecology, its First Nations culture. So right when we're at this turning point, making good on this promise to protect the place, we're sideswiped by this proposal to put big oil here. Living in fear of a catastrophic oil spill has become very real."
McCallister felt that the place's unparalleled wildness and beauty -- and the spirit bear -- offered a unique opportunity to attract national and attention to its plight. So he contacted Cristina Mittermeier, director of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Spoil follows an innovative artistic/political intervention developed by that organization -- a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE).
The brainchild of photographer Patricio Robles Gil, a RAVE involves deploying a dozen or so of the League's members -- all top-shelf wildlife shooters -- to quickly assemble a visual chronicle of a special place that is in peril. Invented in 2007, RAVEs have been staged in a dozen locales form Patagonia to the Chesapeake Bay.
The ultimate photographic target of the Great Bear RAVE was, of course, the charismatic spirit bear. And the hunt for the elusive creature creates a narrative that culminates with a riveting bit of screen magic involving Marvin Robinson and the Canadian photographer Paul Nicklen.
Nature, Art and Politics -
Most of the debate that preceded last week's State Department decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline focussed on the dangers it posed to the domestic environment: the likelihood of a spill somewhere along the pipeline's 1,700-mile US route, and specifically the threat to Nebraska's Sandhills preserve and the huge aquifer that flows beneath it. That political focus was perfectly reasonable given the goal, but it left the bigger part of the tar sands story untold.
Over the course of its 44 minutes, Spoil provides a compelling introduction to the larger issue and places it in cultural context. The film includes footage of the enormous tar-sands strip mines located in the outback of northeastern Alberta and the refineries that turn its slurry into the very crudest of crude oil--a complex frequently described as the most destructive industrial project on earth. This is contrasted with footage and images of the Great Bear Rainforest -- salmon leaping up waterfalls; moose wandering through 1,000-year-old red cedar forests; time-lapse footage of subarctic starfields set to a soundtrack of a howling wolfpack. The film also documents the efforts of the Gitga'at and their environmentalist allies, including the RAVE photographers.
Jennings gives most of the credit for the film to the Gitga'at and the ILCP shooters, joking that he and his partner, cinematographer Andy Maser, are "the ultimate paratrooping filmmakers."
"We don't do the planning or any of the hard work," he says. "We just show up at the end and point our cameras at the people who did."
While the RAVE provides a big piece of the narrative, the stars of the film are definitely Robinson and the spirit bear he has known since it was a cub--an animal he describes as a "friend." The dramatic climax comes when (spoiler alert) Robinson essentially brings Nicklen to meet the bear in its riparian hunting grounds.
Cinematographer and co-producer Andy Maser was there to capture the moment.
"It was stressful," he recalls. "We'd been there shooting for 15 days and hadn't seen one spirit bear. It was our second-to-last day. Then the planets aligned--we got a hold of Marvin, Paul was on the scene, and the spirit bear showed up."
Spoil is only the third film produced by Jennings, 29, and Maser, 26, and is definitely a breakout effort. But the two are well known in the adventure-sports world as extreme kayakers and world explorers; a Google search of either turns up eye-popping photos and videos of the paddlers plummeting off huge waterfalls or making first descents of remote rivers.
The two men began their filmmaking careers making straightforward kayaking videos. But following a 2007 journey to Papua New Guinea, documented in the 19-minute documentary "The Final Frontier," the young filmmakers pursued a new direction.
"Kayaking has taken me to a lot of pristine places," Maser says. "But to get to them you go through a lot of destruction -- places that have been ruined by bad mining or logging practices. At some point I gained an appreciation for the rivers and the ecosystems, beyond just kayaking them. We decided that it's important to protect the places we love to play."
A New Economy -
While the Gitga'at and their allies see the Keystone XL delay as a victory, they also fear that it could mean more pressure to approve the Northern Gateway project. Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, which has been leading the fight against the pipeline, told Canada's Globe and Mail that his coalition will redouble its efforts.
"I would expect [the US State Department decision] would increase the resolve for the oil companies to try to come west, as opposed to south. It will also increase the resolve of the federal government," Sterritt said last week. Meanwhile, Brian Topp, a writer and leading member of the progressive New Democratic Party, criticized Finance Minister Flaherty for "threatening Uncle Sam with a tighter embrace of Mao's heirs," and suggested that his country "invest in a new Western Canadian economy that is not dependent on the mining of raw bitumen. "One way or another, the world will soon act to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, and so will Canada. If the best hockey players play where the puck is going to be, then the Western Canadian energy industry -- and our economy as a whole -- need to do the same."
Spirit bear, photographed by Paul Nicklen