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article imageParks Canada gives with one hand, takes away with other

By Stephanie Dearing     Nov 15, 2009 in Environment
At a conservation conference in Mexico November 7, Canada's Environment Minister announced the expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve, located in the Northwest Territories.
The expansion of the park is huge, the Toronto Star reported, a total of 33,000 kilometers of boreal forest. This makes the park roughly the size of Belgium. Parks Canada said "Minister Prentice was invited to speak at the international congress in recognition of the Government's stewardship in the massive expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve of Canada, a World Heritage Site and the 6th largest national park in the world." At the Wild9 conference, Canada signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the United States and Mexico that seeks to protect the wilderness in North America. A release issued by Parks Canada quoted Environment Minister Jim Prentice as saying the "unprecedented" "... memorandum of understanding with the U.S. and Mexico to cooperate on wilderness conservation will lead to tangible benefits for wilderness and our protected places. We will be working towards common goals of building and restoring resilient, well-connected networks of protected areas that will be a wilderness legacy for the future."
Parks Canada had announced the expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve this summer. At the time, Eric Hebert-Daly, the National Executive Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAW) lauded Canada's move saying "The Nahanni is the jewel of Canada's Boreal forest, and one of the world's greatest wilderness treasures. Canada has shown true global leadership by protecting it." The move to expand Nahanni came after a report by Dr. John Weaver encouraged enhanced protection for the wildlife in the area. Weaver said "The previous boundary was too narrow and too small for [these] big animals, and this expansion will protect critical habitat for these vulnerable wildlife species." Weaver is with the Wildlife onservation Society Canada, and he had conducted an exhaustive study of the area's habitat for large animals, such as previously listed.bears and caribou that live in that part of the Northwest Territories. Weaver urged the protection of the area from industrial developments such as oil and gas as well as mining. His 2007 report said such developments were "imminent," and Parks Canada credited Weaver's work as instrumental in the expansion of the park.
With the latest research showing Canadian boreal forests are key to storing carbon emissions, it seems that Jim Prentice and Parks Canada were prescient in earmarking 33,000 km of the Northwest Territories to become part of the Nahanni Reserve.
CPAWS has been trumpeting the fact that the Nahanni has been "protected forever." So how is it that the planned expansion of Nahanni by Canada included preserving two mining operations that would, due to the expansion, be sited within the park? Allowing two mines to continue to operate was no secret. Bill C-38 states "... Approximately 9% of the Dehcho part of that ecosystem is excluded from, but surrounded by, the expanded park reserve. According to the Parks Canada backgrounder released with the bill, the excluded area “represents all of the hydrocarbon potential and about half of the most important mineral potential [in the area], as well as 100 percent of existing mineral claims and mineral leases.”(2) The excluded area includes two current mining operations, which will continue to operate under existing regulations. The bill provides for the accommodation of certain existing third-party rights within the expansion area. This is an attempt to balance conservation and sustainable development by providing economic development opportunities for the people of the region."
Virginia Falls  Nahanni Reserve
The Virginia waterfalls in Nahanni National Park Reserve, Northwest Territories, Canada. The falls are twice the height of Niagara falls.
Josh Steinitz
UNESCO has long held concerns about the impacts of mining on the Nahanni Reserve, saying "... haul roads and mining could destroy the integrity of the site and poison the groundwater with contamination by the arsenic, antimony and abundant mercury in the ores. 40 tonnes of cyanide are stored on site and the toxic tailings pond is sited in a valley subject to flash floods and earthquake in an area where sulphuric acid pollution would travel long distances both overland and under the surface (Ford, 2005). Moreover, no relocation bond has been posted by the company. Proposed reopening of a tungsten mine which closed in 2003, 45 km up the tributary Flat River, also risks polluting the river. Park staff are working with stakeholders in the Greater Nahanni Ecosystem such as the Dehcho and Sahtu First Nations to avert these potential threats."
Parks Canada has not said how it would ensure the protection of the Nahanni from the potential pollution from the two mines that so concerned UNESCO, aside from saying "Development of these rights, including the right of access, will still be subject to existing regulatory processes."
In 2002, the Mining Association of Canada prepared an assessment of the impacts of mining on Canada's National Parks for the Candian Nature Federation. The Association identified "Mining continues to be a stressor to Nahanni National Park and Reserve. The regulatory process associated with mining was reported has having serious impacts on parks resources and staff. The potential for serious ecological impacts was also identified, but not confirmed with evidence due to a lack of information from monitoring and research. There was a variety of mining activities identified adjacent to Nahanni National Park and Reserve, including; advanced mineral exploration, operating tungsten mine, active mining exploration and abandoned mine sites. Mining facilities included milling and housing infrastructures, camps, tailings ponds, fuel storage, airstrips, and toxic chemical storage. Impacts were identified as including; impacts to water quality in tributaries of the South Nahanni River, impacts to terrain, wildlife impacts including habituation and food conditioning, sensory disturbance, blockage of movement patterns, and mortality and other impacts related to access roads. ahanni also identified several indirect impacts related to local economics of the region, including an increased pressure on wildlife from hunting and an increase in visitor use. Mining was indicated as posing a current and future risk to the cological integrity of the park, due to all the potential impacts."
To be clear, the two mines are not within the Nahanni Reserve -- they are now surrounded by the Nahanni Reserve. This is a succinct difference. One of the companies owning the Prairie Creek Mine, Canadian Zinc, publicly supported the expansion of the Nahanni. The Prairie Creek mine, founded in 1928, is a rich source of high quality minerals and metals.
The other mine, Cantung, owned by North American Tungsten, had been temporarily closed, but is expected to reopen in the future. CPAWS' website states that there have been problems with Cantung. "The lands around the mine site are important woodland caribou calving areas - critical habitat for a federally listed species at risk. This is an important area to protect within the expanded national park. Problems have been reported at the mine site, including seeping tailings ponds and fuel spills."
The Mining sector had expressed concern of the loss of the minerals and metals to be found in Nahinni Reserve due to the expansion of the park.
Jim Prentice neglected to tell his audience at Wild9 that the park expansion was designed to surround two mining operations. He spoke about the emotional and spiritual importance of the Nahanni, as well as saying "We protect and restore ecosystems to maintain opportunities for future generations to connect with nature. We invest in the youth of seven generations from now. We plan for the future – a future where not only are species of plants and animals conserved, not only Aboriginal cultural values are preserved, but our own ability to become children in the wild is preserved as well.
And by doing this, we also create natural buffers that protect our planet against the impacts of climate change such as droughts and floods. We provide safe havens for plants and animals that help nature in response to changing conditions.
These wild areas are the healthy lungs of our planet. They sequester the carbon and exhale the oxygen that living things need to survive."
If there was any disagreement or concern from the Dene of Dehcho First Nations, it has not been public. The Dehcho have enthusiastically supported the expansion.
The Nahanni was UNESCO's first World Heritage Site. The park features karst caves, mountains and river canyons that are said to be like portions of the Grand Canyon.
More about Nahanni park, Parks canada, Jim prentice, Federal environment minister, Wild9 conference
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