Harper protects vast areas of northern land

The average park enthusiast will never set foot on a vast northern land mass that will be granted permanent protection today in what environmentalists hail as one of the largest conservation moves in Canadian history.

But, then again, neither will hot-to-trot Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline developers or uranium mine drillers be allowed to stomp around the vast boreal forest and tundra that will be withdrawn from industrial use at an announcement in Ottawa this morning.

And that’s the key point of an exercise that creates an unholy, but happy, marriage of ecstatic environmentalists and a Stephen Harper government often derided by opponents as one filled with climate change deniers and parkland industrialists.

The names of these areas in the Northwest Territories won’t ring any bells to most — East Arm and The Ramparts — but the feds are getting two green thumbs up for taking a pre-emptive strike in the name of conservation before resource exploitation gets a toehold in the region.

It’s a massive sheltering of wilderness, a move that will declare 10 million hectares off limits to industrial development, an area roughly equal to five Prince Edward Islands or 11 Yellowstone National Parks.

The Ramparts delta, which straddles the Arctic Circle 800 kilometres north of Yellowknife, will be granted national wetlands status and protection from development, even if the proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline goes ahead.

In consultation with First Nations in the area, the East Arm of Great Slave Lake will be fast-tracked into becoming Canada’s largest national park, no longer vulnerable to mining activity as uranium exploration moves along the river valley.

The region boasts Christie Bay, which has the deepest water on the continent, and a spectacular array of peninsulas, canyons and waterfalls as the forests give way to northern tundra. It’s also home to one of the largest caribou herds in the north.

Environmentalists hail the move as a grand finale to 40 years of hem-hawing by a half-dozen governments and praise it as an overdue response to First Nations demands that culturally significant formations be preserved.

“This is the really big step to us nature nuts,” gushes Harvey Locke, senior adviser to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “These are decisions in the order of the magnitude of those that created Banff or Jasper national parks. It’s on the scale that science says we need to move at to preserve the boreal forest. I can’t say anything that isn’t good news on this.”

[It should be noted that while protecting large tracts of land are essential to protecting the boreal forest, climate change could undo many of these conservation efforts. The southern boundary of the boreal forest is controlled by wildfires, while the norther boundary is controlled by the presence of permafrost in the soil. The threat is that due to climate change the southern region of the forest will dry up, and fire frequency could increase to a point where trees are unable to grow. This is a relatively fast process and the souther boundary could migrate north quickly, while the northern boundary could only advance northward as the permafrost melts which is a much slower process. There is a possibility that the fires in the southern regions of the boreal forest could catch up to the northern boundary essentially burning the entire boreal forest in certain regions.]

With public consultation on a 5,400-square-kilometre expansion to the Nahanni River proposal ending later this week, the way is clear for that world heritage site to become a park within months. The Conservatives have also preserved two environmentally significant peninsulas on Great Bear Lake.

“Add all these moves together and we’re getting into historic set-asides on a North American scale,” notes Locke who, it should be noted, has run as a Liberal in Alberta. “There’s been a lot of talk, but these guys are delivering. It’s super-cool to have them move from possibilities into action.”

Money will also be announced to nail down the preservation and protection efforts, sources say.

The move is clearly designed to help the Conservative government polish its environmental record as ministers head off for another round of negotiations on reducing greenhouse gases to fight climate change.

But there’s no denying that this advances a pile of park-creation business that has languished since the 1970s.

Who could’ve believed it? A Stephen Harper government is going dark green on files ignored since Liberal icon Pierre Trudeau was a rookie prime minister.

No wonder environmentalists are calling today’s developments “mind-boggling.”

(via The Calgary Herald)

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