Battle Over South Nahanni Watershed Re-Opens

Another attempt by land use planners in the Sahtu to make the South Nahanni watershed off-limits to development is seeing renewed government opposition.

The Sahtu Land Use Planning Board (SLUPB) is proposing an amendment to the region’s land use plan that would see areas that were left out of the recently established Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve protected through other means.

Despite the vast majority of residents in the Sahtu voting for the largest of three options for the new national park, the previous federal government chose the smallest version in 2012, in order to leave several key mineral deposits outside of the boundaries.

The three options originally presented for the park’s boundaries. Though the majority of Sahtu residents voted for Option 1, the federal government went with Option 3

Since then, the SLUPB has been considering rezoning options for the 2,702 square kilometres that were omitted from Nááts’ihch’oh. According to regional assessments, those areas contain important habitat for grizzly bears, moose, mountain goats and Dall’s sheep, along with woodland caribou calving areas. The proposed amendment would see the areas, still protected under a land withdrawal (a temporary protection blocking it from development during negotiations), labelled either as a special management zone or a conservation zone.

For the amendment to come into effect, it must be approved by the Sahtu Secretariat Inc., the GNWT minister of Lands and the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

The department of Lands has since voiced concerns about the proposed amendment and its potential effects on development and the regulatory system in the territory.

Though it was never made an option during public consultations, 70 percent of respondents supported protection of the entire South Nahanni watershed. 

“The GNWT is concerned that the special management zoning in the Draft Amendment may have negative implications to economic opportunities by adding uncertainty to the regulatory process,” reads a letter from land use director Terry Hall to the SLUPB, stating the government’s view that the existing regulatory system will be sufficient to protect those lands.

“The GNWT recognizes that special management zoning was selected because these areas also hold important ecological and cultural values. The GNWT is of the view that the regulatory and environmental assessment processes will ensure these values area (sic) taken into account.”

Mineral deposits in the Nááts’ihch’oh area.

According to Hall, the most immediate concern for the GNWT is the existing Selwyn zinc-lead mine that borders the proposed zone. A 2012 estimate placed the deposit at 9.7 million tonnes of zinc and 3.3 million tonnes of lead at a value exceeding $20 billion in the Yukon and NWT.

“The GNWT is of the view that aspects of the Draft Amendment could be reconsidered to better support economic goals of the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, Sahtu Land Use Plan, and the GNWT’s Land Use and Sustainability Framework, which all state that social, cultural, and economic well-being must be protected and promoted through land use planning processes,” Hall wrote.

Nááts’ihch’oh was established in August 2012. Though it was never made an option during public consultations, 70 percent of respondents supported protection of the entire South Nahanni watershed. Only 65 of 1,603 respondents expressed a preference for one of the three available options for park boundaries. Of those, 60 voted for Option 1, three voted for Option 2 and only two supported Option 3. Ultimately, Option 3 was approved.

The federal government undertook a review of the park’s boundaries after leaders in the Sahtu expressed great disappointment regarding the omission of certain key areas from the reserve. The boundaries were changed slightly in May 2014 to include 20 square kilometres in the O’Grady Lakes area as well as some other minor adjustments.

According to the GNWT, Nahanni National Park and Nááts’ihch’oh now collectively protect 86 percent of the watershed.

The Sahtu Land Use Planning Board is holding an open house and public meeting around the proposed amendment on June 15-16 in Tulita, where the board and the GNWT will present their divergent zoning plans for the area surrounding Nááts’ihch’oh.

The open house will take place at 7 p.m. on June 15 and the meeting at 10 a.m. on June 16. Both events are happening at the arena in Tulita.

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