Fisher Bay reserve “makes sense economically, ecologically and culturally”

December 15, 2009

The Fisher River Cree Nation could see a net gain of $38 million annually if the province approves new boundaries for the proposed Fisher Bay Provincial Park, according to a study released by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) last Thursday.

The study, conducted by the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, a national non-profit First Nation-directed group, found Fisher River would lose more than $2 million in logging and guided hunting industry revenue through the park’s creation, but would gain slightly less than $40 million through tourism spending, cottage and other ecological industries.

“The results of this study were more extreme than we expected,” said Ron Thiessen, CPAWS Manitoba executive director. “The benefits of the provincial park, if it’s designated as we’ve proposed, would be 18 times greater than if the area were harvested for logging, mining and non-Aboriginal hunting. That’s a huge increase.”

The report based its economic benefit estimates on an economic impact model for parks and protected areas and used Turtle Mountain Provincial Park to represent the Fisher Bay park in the study because of the areas’ similarities.

Thiessen estimates the park would create more than 100 local jobs.

“They wouldn’t be prone to the boom and bust of other industries like natural resource extraction,” said Thiessen. “Eco and cultural tourism are dynamic industries with diverse benefits that outweigh their costs.”

Fisher River has a 46-per-cent employment rate, according to the report. Of that, 10 per cent of jobs are in the fishing industry and 50 per cent are in local social services. The majority of the employed leave the community for other opportunities.

Chief David Crate estimates the eco and cultural tourism industry would provide the area with work for 12 to 15 years.

“We’re in discussion with the Radisson Hecla Oasis Resort to link with their eco-tourism tours,” said Crate. “The Leigh Cochrane Memorial Visitor Centre would coordinate a lot of it.”

The province, at the Fisher River’s request, created the Fisher Bay Park Reserve in 1999 to provide temporary protection to an approximately 89,000-hectare area, which is 70 per cent water and includes the Moose, Little Moose, Tamarack and other islands, shoals, reefs and adjacent mainland. The park’s reserve status was renewed in 2005.

A year later, after analyzing the results of an Areas of Ecological Significance study, CPAWS and Fisher River requested the province designate the reserve a provincial park before it loses its protected status in 2010 and expand the park’s proposed boundaries to include 160,000 hectares to protect more wetlands and boreal bogs. Earlier this year, CPAWS and Fisher River renewed that plea.

“We’ve received support from players of all political stripes: Conservative Selkirk-Interlake MP James Bezan, Conservation Minister Bill Blaikie when he was still an MP, provincial Liberal leader Jon Gerrard and the Green Party,” said Thiessen. “The province has received more than 11,000 letters from Manitobans supporting the park and we’ve had an incredible amount of support from the Jackhead First Nation, Town of Arborg, Village of Riverton and RM of Coldwell.”

The province, which is currently consulting with local stakeholders and the public, could designate the reserve a provincial park as early as 2010. This latest economic study, commissioned by Fisher River and CPAWS, is part of that process.

The park would exclude potential treaty land entitlement selections by the Peguis First Nation and would likely raise the property value of the cottage development announced by Fisher River and the province Oct. 9, according to Thiessen.

“We commend the Manitoba government for moving forward on establishing the park,” said Thiessen. “Now the challenge is to make sure it’s designated according to the best ecological and cultural considerations rather than political lines.”

Thiessen says the new park would be ideal for tourism because of its proximity to Winnipeg and prohibit industrial activities, except for commercial fishing, while respecting Aboriginal and Treaty Rights such as non-commercial traditional First Nations hunting and trapping.

“The reserve is part of the boreal forest, which is home to trees such as pine, poplar and birch; animals such as lynx, fox, caribou and the Piping Plover; bogs, lakes and rivers,” said Thiessen. “It’s also the largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon on the planet, which helps slow climate change. I congratulate Chief Crate and his council for their incredible vision to protect the land.”

Crate thanked CPAWS and the public for supporting the park initiative.

“I was talking to an elder, Walter Sinclair, who’s fished in the Fisher Bay area for more than 60 years, about the changes he’s seen,” said Crate. “He’s seen the return of the eagle. They’re nesting there now, which is good. We need to protect the area for the long-term future. Our community wants this park because it makes sense economically, ecologically, and culturally.”

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