The federal government has pledged to complete Canada’s national park system, starting with work on a brand-new park bridging forest and tundra.
The plan, announced Friday by Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, also includes a long-awaited timeline for expansion of Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories and promises to move ahead with parks from southern British Columbia to Manitoba to Quebec and three marine conservation areas.
“We’ll be focusing on eight unrepresented regions across Canada,” said Ambrose. “We’re going to be taking very concrete action in the very short term to achieve these results.”
Ambrose was in Lutsel K’e, a Dene community on the southeast shore of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories that should one day be on the boundary of East Arm National Park. She announced an agreement between the Lutsel K’e First Nation and Ottawa to begin drawing the boundaries and setting the rules for the park.
“For the first time, these communities are saying they want to work with us, and they want to work with the federal government,” said Ambrose, speaking at the end of a week in which she faced heavy criticism over her proposed Clean Air Act.
Parks Canada first identified East Arm as a possible park in 1970, but the amount of land singled out Friday is more than four times the original amount. In all, a total of 33,525 square kilometres is included in land now described as an “area of interest” â€” more than 50 times the size of the city of Toronto or about 60 per cent of New Brunswick.
East Arm is home to vast herds of caribou as well as beaver, muskrat, lynx, wolf, red fox, wolverine, martin, mink, otter, moose and black bear. The land, a transition zone between the northern boreal forest and the open tundra, includes innumerable deep, clear lakes, a rich scattering of islands in Great Slave Lake, long fault-block escarpments, gorges and waterfalls.
Negotiations to turn the area into a park began in 1970, but talks stalled over resistance from local aboriginals. Since then, those leaders have consulted other First Nations such as the Haida in B.C. and the Deh Cho Dene, who have completed successful negotiations with Parks Canada.
Friday’s agreement commits the Lutsel K’e Dene and Ottawa to complete a feasibility study for the park over the next three years. That study will include a minerals and energy assessment.
The study’s budget has yet to be worked out.
Ambrose also committed to completing the long-awaited expansion of Nahanni National Park â€” a World Heritage Site and global canoeing destination â€” by 2008.
That expansion, to include the South Nahanni watershed, could take the park from 4,800 square kilometres to as much as 38,000 square kilometres.
A mine owned by Canadian Zinc Inc. (TSX: CZN) operates about 42 kilometres upstream of the current park’s outline and would likely would be well inside any new Nahanni boundaries. The Cantung (TSXV:NTC) tungsten mine would also likely be very near any new park boundaries.
Ambrose emphasized that public consultations are about to begin, and that no lines have yet been drawn to mark out the new park.
“Our next step is assessing the completion of the (resource assessment) and that will address that issue and provide us with the information that we need to determine our park boundaries,” she said.
Ambrose said the government is also opening negotiations on a series of other parks. Their locations include Bathurst Island in Nunavut, the interlake lowlands region in Manitoba, the south Okanagan-Similkameen area in B.C. and four regions in Quebec.
“We have an agreement that Canada and Quebec will work collaboratively on the national parks in Quebec,” Ambrose said. “It’s been decades since that happened.”
She said the government also plans to move ahead on three national marine conservation areas â€” the Gwaii Hanaas on the Pacific coast, the Georgia Strait and Lake Superior.
“Conservation is a priority of this government, and on a personal level it’s something that I’m very much committed to,” Ambrose said.