Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen walk through part of the North’s newest park: Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve.
NORMAN WELLS, N.W.T—Canada’s North is getting a new park — but one that will be carved up to allow for future resource development.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed Wednesday that Ottawa would be moving ahead with the creation of the Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve to preserve the “rich natural wonders and cultural heritage” of Canada’s north.
But of the three options on the table, Ottawa opted for the smallest choice, disappointing environmentalists and First Nations leaders.
Even Parks Canada admits the other options would have done more to protect the landscape and the wildlife that move through it.
“This option offers minimal protection to important conservation values,” the department said in a consultation document about the proposed park.
The reserve — which will be Canada’s 44th national park — is a stunning vista of mountains and meadowlands that is adjacent to the north end of the famed Nahanni National Park and will protect the headwaters of the South Nahanni River.
The mist-shrouded mountains are also a place of special spiritual significance for First Nations peoples in the area.
“We are protecting our environmental heritage for generations to come,” Harper said Wednesday during a visit to this territory town as part of his annual northern tour.
But the option described as “best” for conservation would have created a park 6,450-square kilometres that protected the watershed as well as grizzly and caribou population.
Instead, Ottawa has opted for a smaller park –— 4,840 square kilometres — with reduced protections for the land and wildlife. On a map, the chosen option has a chunk carved out of the park’s north end as well as a wide strip that bisects the west side — all areas of potential resource development.
Chief Frank Andrew, Tulita Dene band, is hoping that Ottawa may yet relent and expand the boundary.
“We’ll talk about that later on. We didn’t sign an agreement yet,” Andrew said.
He said negotiations with the federal government originally centered on the larger option.
“Then things started to shrink more and more. We would have preferred a bigger park for sure.”
During a speech, Andrew spoke movingly of a land recognized “not only for its majestic beauty but also for its special sacred power.
“Our ancestors travelled all the traditional trails . . . over the mountains, with mothers, with grandmothers carrying babies and toddlers on their back,” Andrew said.
The proposed boundaries appear to leave vital caribou calving and breeding grounds, and source waters of the Nahanni River outside the park boundary, according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
“Does there need to be additional protection outside of this national park. Could this national park have done the perfect job the first time,” said Kris Brekke, executive director of the organization’s chapter in the Northwest Territories, who was at the announcement.
Harper said that resource development opportunities were “carefully considered” in setting the park’s boundaries but refused to be drawn into a debate about the government’s final choice.
“One of our objectives . . . is to make sure we protect our environment and also allow for economic opportunity here,” Harper said.
Latourelle, chief executive officer of Parks Canada, said that striking that balance is a reality of how parks are developed.
“In the end we create a park that works for conservation and ensures economic development and that’s what we have done here,” he said.