Paul Colangelo on the Sacred Headwaters

Typically political action can take shape only when the general populous is rallied and motivated to take a stand. When it comes to building awareness for issues of environmental protection it’s especially difficult because those regions most in need of protecting are usually far away from the public eye. That’s why an organization called the International League of Conservation Photographers goes out into some of the most remote habitats in the world to document the current condition of delicate ecosystems at  risk of destruction.

“I’ve been working in the Sacred Headwaters region since about 2009, now,” said ILCP photographer Paul Colangello. “And really briefly, the Sacred Headwaters is where three salmon bearing rivers all begin in one region of Northern British Columbia. So it’s the Stakeen, the Skeena and the Nass. It’s also home to one of the largest predator prey ecosystems in North America and it’s the traditional territory of the Tahltan first nation.”
Paul Colangelo is one of several members of the ILCP working to protect the Sacred Headwaters of British Columbia. This region is among the largest temperate rainforests in North America. But over the past few years it’s been flooded with proposed resource extraction projects. The biggest of which is Shell Oil’s million acre, coalbed methane tenure right in the heart of the headwaters. Others include an open pit gold and copper mine and a mountain top removal coal mine.
But the push back among the local population has been fierce. Approximately 1,500 members of the indigenous Tahltan nation have raised a lot of public awareness through blockades and sit-ins. They were actually able to stop Shell, the second largest corporation in the world.
“Well somewhat stop them,” Colangelo said. “They achieved a four year moratorium. But this will be lifted in december of 2012. And so we’ve been working in the area. That’s when the ILCP got involved too and produced a RAVE.”

A RAVE is a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition. A team of world-class photographers like Colangelo along with videographers and journalists go into endangered regions such as the Sacred Headwaters and work to tell its story.

“We’re trying to bring the Sacred Headwaters to people, because it’s so remote,” Colangelo said. “Most people even living in British Columbia have never even heard about it. So we’re pretty much just trying to raise awareness. And we’re hoping to get people’s support for the protection of this area.”

Paul Colagello’s work along with eight other members of the ILCP culminated in a book written by National Geographic explorer Wade Davis called Sacred Headwaters Sacred Journey. I had a chance to talk to Colangello back in 2011 during the Banff Mountain Film Festival in Alberta Canada. There he shared the story behind his amazing photographs and the RAVE launched to protect this remote region at risk.



Tell me a little bit about what a photographer does to help facilitate the preservation of these wild places.

Well number one would be bringing places to people were they can’t see it. You can read about a spot, but you’re more likely to have a, you know a real connection and a reaction and waiting to save it if you actually see it. And then, I mean, after that, I mean, after you get to know and get, you know really deep into these issues and you get to know a region you can spot other potential problems and then make people aware of that even beyond photography. An example of that is Okanagan Mountain just this past December, the B.C. Government permitted just about the entire plateau for mining, exploration mining. And this mountain happens to be the home to the worlds largest lambing herd of stone sheep. And so I mean in 2001 recognizing the value of this herd the British Columbia government actually protected their winter habitat which is the slope of the mountain. And then they turned around and permitted the actual plateau for mining. So it’s things like these, and when you hear about it beyond photography you have to get it out there. And you know working the area as a photographer you’re just, you become, you know some of the first people to hear about these issues. So there is, there’s definitely a role beyond just taking pic, photos of the…

Can you give me an idea of what the RAVE process is? When you put together a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition how do you stage that? How do you make it happen to produce this body of work?

As I understand it my role as a photographer is that, um, you know is mainly in the field. But as I understand it from the planning process, once the IOCP has an issue that they’ve identified that they would like to get involved with, first of all though, they’ll try to identify what the end product should be, what they want to accomplish through the RAVE and work backwards from that. They figure out what they need and then what they need to produce that. So then they start looking a specialties of photographers, so that can aerial water camera traps and then also where the photographers are from. They want people who are local, who know the region, but then also as I understand it people from far away, because you know, if you have a group of say B.C. photographers shooting in in B.C. that’s one thing. But if you have a photographer coming in from Mexico, photographers coming in from the States all of the sudden it’s a lot more interesting and there’s more opportunity for media buzz. And so that I believe plays a role in it as well.

So if it weren’t for a RAVE how would people find out about this?

That’s the thing…it would be really difficult. It was definitely in the papers. And you know even things like the swim, people hear about it then it definitely generates interest, but again you’re missing, you can’t see what they’re talking about. You just hear that it’s a really pretty spot, there’s three rivers, there’s salmon, there’s people. But then there’s no connection. And so you know, the ideal thing, if everyone could get there and see it, we wouldn’t need the photos and that would just be perfect. The photos would just be for the pamphlets and what not. But people can’t get there and so this is only way realistically for people to actually see it. In all of these conservation expeditions I think photography just plays a huge, huge role in connecting people to what the issue is.

So in an  installation like this at some point I have to assume that your government, governments around the world will start enacting legislation to either protect or to allocate licenses to extract in these areas. How important are these images in terms of directing public discourse to either support or deny claims of either preservation or extraction.

There’s two things there. When people see the images and hear about the issue the first thing they usually ask is what can we do. And it’s…the number one thing is speaking up and letting the government and the companies know how you feel about it, because hear where there are not many voters in the area, there’s not many people to tell them that. So that plays a huge role. And it may seem insignificant, but signing a postcard, I don’t know the exact number, but one of the environmental organizations collected so many cards that they were able to ship say 30 a day for nine months or something like that. So that has a real impact. Otherwise, they’re not going to hear from anybody. And so it might seem frustrating, it might seem insignificant, but it can make a huge change. But then also you’re talking about if you can actually reach the decision makers with the image, I meant that’s a whole other thing. Like they say the images themselves aren’t going to change the world but they might inspire someone who can and so if you can get these up on government buildings or anything like that and it’s just there’s that potential too. It doesn’t happen as often but the potential there and it’s really important.

So at the end of the day is there anything you want people to know about this project and your work to create these images?

Yeah, it’s not just an environmental issue. It’s an issue of respect. There’s people here who’s already had an incredibly difficult time with the culture. The first nations’ history in Canada and they’re trying to preserve it. And this is such an important part of their culture. it’s their backyard. They describe it as it being their kitchen and so it’s not just rivers and animals. but it’s like someone coming in and saying, you know taking a piece of your culture that’s important, your church, your school, whatever. And so it’s human rights too and because there is such a small number of them we need to help just by speaking up against them.

You can learn more about the International League of Conservation Photographer’s efforts to project the rainforests for British Columbia online. Visit There you can see a few of Paul Colangelo’s incredible photographs or purchase a copy of the book.

Music this week by Chad Farran 

The Joy Trip Project is possible with the support of sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company. And special thanks to the Walton Works who helped to underwrite travel expenses to Banff so I could bring back this and other great stories. Visit




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I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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