JUNEAU -- When Ian Kean loads a raft for a trip down the Taku River, he brings gourmet food, wine and a heavy environmental agenda.
Kean started his eco-tourism company, The River League, to bring attention to rivers he believes are endangered by bringing people to those waterways. Half the River League's scheduled trips are on the Taku, not just because it's considered by some the largest wilderness left in North America, but because a Canadian mining company is planning to reopen the dormant Tulsequah Chief Mine on a tributary of the Taku River.
''There's a need for more people to fall in love with the area and, after having fallen in love, to speak for it,'' Kean said.
Many of the trips Kean runs are invitation-only events that include media representatives and decision makers. Kean has introduced National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis, wildlife artist Robert Bateman, wildlife photographer Art Wolfe, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki and officials from the Alaska governor's office down the Taku.
''He, in a way, has probably brought more attention to that river just by putting certain people in those rafts and showing it to them than most people have,'' said Michael Dunlap, a Juneau resident who's taken the Taku River trip. ''Plus he serves good food. They call it float and bloat for a reason.''
But Kean's never invited Eldon Schorn, vice-president for corporate affairs of Redfern Resources, the company trying to open the gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc mine.
''It's an effort that has a particular agenda, and that agenda isn't necessarily balanced in terms of loading the rafts with both positive and negative sides of the equation,'' Schorn said.
Redfern doesn't care if people recreate on the river, but occasionally the rafters stop at the mine without permission, Schorn said.
''Unless we're there to present our side of the case, we probably feel it's a little unfair that that happen,'' Schorn said.
The mine is already opposed by the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, Alaskan fishermen, and environmental groups on both sides of the border. Gov. Tony Knowles requested a review of the project by the International Joint Commission, which investigates transboundary waterway disputes between Canada and the U.S. Alaskans are worried the mine will leach acid into the Taku River, damaging a $10 million salmon fishery. The Douglas Island Indian Association, U.S. Geological Survey and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have been testing water below the old mine sites for two years and have found high levels of some heavy metals.
''Some of it is natural, some of it may not be,'' said EPA environmental planner Harold Frank.
The mine plans have been through a thorough environmental review ''to the satisfaction of the experts,'' Schorn said. ''It appears that the issue around the footprint of the mine is less significant than the concerns of the road opening up the area.'' Even Kean agrees with that. He calls the 100-mile road Redfern Resources plans to build ''a road to ruin.''
''It's going to destroy the wild Taku, which is essentially one of the last wild salmon producers left on the continent,'' Kean said.
Mine opponents fear the road could also increase hunting pressure, lead to roadside developments, spur new mining claims and encourage logging. But Schorn said Redfern is committed to restricting the road so it is not open for everyone to use, possibly with a gate. And not everyone is against the road, Schorn said.
''There's probably as many arguments for the road to open up and make things more convenient for them as there are arguments against the road,'' Schorn said. ''Certainly there's a strong contingent of people who see the road as a real benefit.''
It could even bring more tourists to play on the river. Maybe too many. Kean recognizes there's a tricky balance to find, between a wilderness being unknown and therefore unprotected, and the area becoming overwhelmed and essentially loved to death. The more media attention he brings to the Taku, the more people may try to visit.
''The secret's out now. Everyone's going to want to come up,'' said Buck Lindekugel, another Juneau resident who's taken the trip.
''I hope it doesn't turn into a Disneyland and it always could, but I think even that's better than a dead zone.''
The River League's Taku trips range from eight to 11 days and go from late June into August. The cost is around $3,000 and includes charter flights. The League takes fewer than 100 people down the Taku each year, and is careful to leave nothing behind. Even human waste is hauled out.
Kean would like the area protected by a transboundary agreement between Alaska and British Columbia.
''I'm not advocating everybody go see it,'' he said. ''For some people it's enough to know that the wolves are still running around wild.''
Kristan Hutchison is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.
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