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Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation pushes for park approval
Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve signing wanted before devolution

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 08, 2013

The Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation's (LKDFN) chief negotiator says he hopes an agreement in principle for Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve will be signed soon.

"We anticipate it will happen within the next couple of months, by September at the latest," said Steve Nitah.

The AIP was expected to be signed last month, but was delayed, Nitah said.

The LKDFN wants to rally the territorial government and the Northwest Territories Chamber of Mines in establishing the park, he said.

While preliminary meetings have taken place, all parties are waiting on the proposed park's Mineral and Energy Resource Assessment (MERA), which is being compiled by Natural Resources Canada.

The report was scheduled for release in 2011, but Nitah said that too has been delayed. He said he does not know when the report will be released.

"Nothing official," he said. "It's three years behind schedule, going on four years."

Nitah said when the MERA is finished, the LKDFN wants to work with the territory and the chamber to finalize the park's boundaries.

"We're hoping once the MERA is completed, we can sit down with the chamber and the GNWT and identify a boundary and present that boundary to Canada together, which is not how it's usually done," he said.

Nitah said working together with the territory and the chamber will help develop made-in-the-North tools to guide the management of protected areas.

"The idea of creating Northern tools is to create legislation that can be used by the government of the Northwest Territories to protect important areas to the people of the NWT, whether they're from the Inuvialuit, Gwich'in or any other regions down the Mackenzie Valley," Nitah said. "Those tools do not exist today."

He said the goal is to establish legislation that reflects the values of LKDFN. The territorial government, when working out agreements with other First Nations and affected parties, can then use that legislation as a guideline.

The tools aim to balance resource development and wilderness protection, Nitah said.

"At the same time, make it flexible enough that if you want to access non-renewable resources within that area, that through a process, that can happen," he said.

"What that process is and what those tools - what they look like - we don't know yet because we haven't created it."

About 33,000 square km have been set aside as the park's study area, which protects it from development.

However, Nitah said that protection ends on March 31, 2014 - the day before the devolution deal between the federal government and the territory is scheduled to come into effect.

Nitah said he worries what will happen to Thaidene Nene if a formal agreement isn't reached before that time.

"The concern here is we have been in dialogue with Canada for a number of years now. Before our dialogue is completed and we have an agreement that would identify a boundary for Thaidene Nene, Canada has agreed to hand over the crown lands that Thaidene Nene currently sits in to the government of the Northwest Territories," he said.

The proposed park area, which begins at the Eastern arm of Great Slave Lake, is the homeland of the LKDFN, Nitah said.

The area includes lakes, rivers and a variety of waterfalls, such as the Old Lady of the Falls, which is of special significance to the LKDFN.

The area extends from the Boreal forest to the tundra and is home to caribou, moose, muskoxen, fish and birds.

Nitah said the area's beauty is second to none.

"We get more visitations in this area than all the national parks and protected areas in the NWT and Nunavut combined to date," he said.

The First Nation hopes to capitalize on the region's beauty and cultural significance to create a cultural tourism industry, Nitah said.

"We're trying to capture this area and preserve it in a way that future generations will continue to use it," he said. "At the same time, Lutsel Ke would like to create an economy around that, so that we're not totally dependent on non-renewable resource extraction as a source of revenue."

Nitah attended last week's National Aboriginal Tourism Opportunities Conference in Osoyoos, B.C., and gave a presentation on Thaidene Nene and the idea of cultural tourism.

He said Canada's tourism industry is expected to double in the next two decades.

"It's definitely an economic opportunity for that area because of Thaidene Nene," Nitah said. "So it's not only about land protection, but it's also about managing the land in a way that also has economic and social value that's sustainable and renewable, which complements the non-renewable industry, which is pretty much the only industry in the Northwest Territories."

Working with the NWT Chamber of Mines will help develop a balanced approach between development and protection, he said.

Tom Hoefer, the chamber's executive director, said Nitah's plan to work together is the first of its kind.

"Nobody has ever done it before, so it's going to be trailblazing," he said. "My observation is that we haven't been very creative at all in the North in the past when it comes to national park creation."

Hoefer said instead of having an area designated a national park, which would prohibit any future development, there are different classifications that can be used when determining protected areas.

"National wildlife areas don't have to preclude development, whereas national parks do," he said.

Hoefer said different designations allow for more flexibility and some can be revisited in the future and changed.

"We know there's minerals there, but we don't like the technology that's available right now," he said, as an example. "But in five or 10 years time, there might be whole new technology that lets you develop them with very minimal footprint. It leaves the options open for future generations. As soon as you put a national park on it, that's closed forever."

Nitah said he's confident preliminary meetings have illustrated the need for a shared agreement between industry, the territory and LKDFN.

"There is a political will, it seems," he said.

He said until a decision is made, work will continue.

A representative from Natural Resources Canada did not return an interview request by press time to discuss when the Mineral and Energy Resource Assessment will be released.

"Natural Resources Canada's mineral and energy resource assessment is undergoing final stages. Once finalized, the report will be posted to the department's website for public access," Michelle Viau, communications advisor with Natural Resources Canada, stated in an email to News/North.

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