Article "A paradise not yet lost" by Becky Mason, written for the Globe & Mail, January 27, 2003
The UN has called the Nahanni River a World Heritage site. "Will the next federal budget help keep it that way?" asks canoeist and activist Becky Mason.
"Deep in the remote Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories runs a magnificent river with a beautiful name: Nahanni. The South Nahanni River surges through the heart of one of Canada's most treasured wilderness areas and national parks. In the coming months, the federal government -- in co-operation with local First Nations and conservation groups -- has an historic opportunity to protect this vast wilderness forever by expanding Nahanni National Park Reserve to protect the entire watershed of the South Nahanni River. But forced to chose between broadening protection and expanding industrial development, what will it choose?
Nahanni's beauty lies in its ruggedness and diversity. It plunges over a waterfall twice the height of Niagara, cuts through canyons more than one kilometre deep, and rushes past hot springs, ancient caves and other natural wonders. Grizzly and black bears, Dall's sheep, woodland caribou and trumpeter swans are just a few of the wildlife species that live in the park. Plants rare to northern boreal forests cling to mist-bathed cliffs below waterfalls and near hot springs. Wildfires burn freely over the land, creating a rich mosaic of forests of all ages.
The Nahanni was the favourite river of my father, Bill Mason, the renowned Canadian filmmaker, artist and canoeist. He paddled its waters many times during his life. The river had a profound effect on him. With cancer and only months to live, his final wish was to be with his family for one last trip down his beloved river. Dad died shortly after that last trip down the Nahanni in 1988. If he were still with us, I know that he would be actively working to improve the protection of one of his favourite places.
The Nahanni makes an impression on everyone who sees it. After visiting the river in the early 1970s, Pierre Trudeau was so inspired that he directed the minister responsible for national parks at the time, Jean Chrétien, to protect a corridor along the river, preventing it from being exploited for hydro development.
In 1978, the United Nations recognized the Nahanni as a natural wonder, designating the national park as one of the world's first natural World Heritage Sites, even before it did so for the Grand Canyon or Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
When the park was established, little was known about the region's ecosystems, resulting in a park boundary that protects the waterfall and canyons, but leaves out critical wildlife habitat and most of the watershed. As a result, today activities outside the park -- particularly mining development -- are the greatest threat to the Nahanni's future.
Right now, Ottawa has an extraordinary opportunity to expand Nahanni National Park Reserve to properly protect the wilderness and wildlife values of the region. The Park Reserve and much of its watershed lie within the traditional territory of the Deh Cho First Nation.
The Deh Cho, who are engaged in land and self-government negotiations with Ottawa, recently passed a resolution calling for the interim protection of the entire South Nahanni watershed, an area seven times larger than the current park. Conservation groups such as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society also support watershed protection as the only way to adequately preserve the wildlife, and to avoid contamination of the region's pristine waters from mining effluent. Nearly all players are in line to protect the area.
Just two things are missing: the political will of all federal government departments, and federal funding.
In October, Prime Minister Chrétien and the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Sheila Copps, committed to expanding the Park Reserve as part of their five-year action plan for Parks Canada. But no one can implement the plan unless there is funding in the forthcoming federal budget. And without the funding this year, the opportunity to protect the South Nahanni watershed will pass by, mining and oil and gas development will continue, and this world-famous wilderness will be irreparably damaged.
The land beyond the park boundaries is controlled by the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, which is responsible for both encouraging industrial development in the North, and protecting its environment. In the case of the Nahanni, these two objectives conflict. What is needed is prime ministerial leadership to make protection of Nahanni a top priority, and recognition by the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs that the greatest societal value of the South Nahanni watershed lies in its long-term protection, not in the short-term exploitation of what lies underground.
Mining and oil and gas exploration is encroaching on the Nahanni. But for a fleeting moment, protection is still within our grasp. We mustn't let it slip away. First Nations, conservation groups, canoeists and wilderness-lovers agree that the entire watershed must be protected. Leadership from the federal government, and funding in the upcoming budget can ensure that Nahanni stays wild and free for future generations of Canadians, and for the world."