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A plan for the Sahtu

A land use plan for the Sahtu Region of the Northwest Territories, Canada is providing hope that important cultural and ecological zones will be protected before major industrial development begin. Tracey Williams of WWF-Canada reports.
The Arctic is a region of great interest to companies eager to capitalise on resources that have previously been too expensive to access. As ice thaws, technologies improve and prices rise, the landscape now beckons to those eager to access its riches. Expanses of northern Canada have been staked out, as geologists look for signs of diamonds, oil or uranium under the surface.

Before the roads open up and the drills start to spin, northern people and conservationists want to ensure that important areas are recognised and protected. The Northwest Territories (NWT) Protected Areas Strategy is a community-driven, multi-stakeholder process to establish a network of protected areas in the NWT.

In the Sahtu Region (hereafter called the Sahtu) of the NWT, the recent developments at the Sahtu Land Use Planning Board are encouraging for conservation efforts of the community-driven Protected Areas Strategy process. The Board has a federal mandate to complete a land use plan through the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Act. The Act was created to provide for an integrated system of land and water management in the Mackenzie Valley.

The completion of a land use plan will give Sahtu residents a tool to organise interests of economic development and conservation. The Sahtu communities of Tulita, Fort Good Hope, and Deline have been working on protected area projects (see Sahouye-Edacho protected area profile article in Arctic Bulletin 02.05) and desire to sequence conservation of their culturally significant lands in advance of heavy industrial allocation.

The land use plan will delineate which lands in the Sahtu Settlement Region are to be conserved and which lands are open to industrial development, as well as prescribing thresholds for development on all Sahtu lands. Such a plan is needed during a key time with accelerating industrial development in the Sahtu and the release of the Mackenzie Gas Project’s environmental impact statement.

With the potential advent of the Mackenzie Gas Project, Sahtu residents face the decision of whether to allow the largest Canadian industrial infrastructure project ever considered to intersect their own lands.

The three districts of the Sahtu have title to 41,437 square kilometers of settlement lands, which includes ownership of subsurface rights on roughly 22 percent or 1,800 square kilometers. These settlement lands are privately held lands, not reserve land managed under the Canadian Indian Act.

The remaining 78 percent of land in the Sahtu remain as federal crown lands under the administration of the Northern Oil and Gas Secretariat.

Under the Land Claim, the Sahtu land corporations are required to be locally consulted by any company interested in industrial development in their settlement area, whether that development is to take place on settlement land or federal crown land. As the land corporations field the permits and oversee land use in the districts, a completed draft Sahtu Land Use Plan that could help to guide their work has only been available in a preliminary draft form. A fully consulted Draft Sahtu Land Use Plan can only result from community member discussions involving all key community land organisations.

At the federal level, when the Northern Oil and Gas Secretariat identifies a new claim block for oil and gas exploration, the government has no direct process to take into account cultural and spiritual site locations important to a community unless these are reported to them by the company.

Therefore, many culturally important sites are not considered, even though many of these special areas in the Sahtu were identified by a regional working group in 1999 in the “Places we take Care of Report”, and were included in the Preliminary Draft Sahtu Land Use Plan.

Most recently, significant sites to the Mackenzie Valley Dene in the Sahtu have been included in the 2005 published coffee table “Sahtu Atlas” (See the book review on page 23). The Atlas covers many vital statistics of the region as well as recounts the important stories related to significant cultural areas’ in the Sahtu.

There is a growing interest in the Sahtu to protect culturally significant lands as well as to identify the best options for sustainable economic development. But there is creeping confusion, if not growing irritation with a federal government that concurrently supports ad hoc industrial development through unplanned oil and gas permitting and mineral exploration.

Though the verdict is still out, the recent positive developments at the Sahtu Land Use Planning Board could be a means to focus all land use planning with the possibility of an approved Draft Sahtu Land Use Plan in 2006. A completed draft plan has the potential to play an instrumental role in creating a balanced vision which ensures that the culturally and ecologically significant areas are conserved for the communities of the Sahtu and for Canada, in advance of industrial development.

Tracey Williams
The Sahtu Land Use Plan is proving to be an effective tool for the identification and ... 
© Freya Nales, WWF-Canada / CPAWS
The Sahtu Land Use Plan is proving to be an effective tool for the identification and potential protection of ecologically and culturally sensitive areas in the Sahtu Region, Northwest Territories, Canada.
© Freya Nales, WWF-Canada / CPAWS

Book review

The Sahtu Atlas: Maps and Stories from the Sahtu Settlement Area
in Canada’s Northwest Territories
James Auld & Robert Kershaw (Eds.)
Government of the Northwest
Territories/Sahtu GIS Project, Canada.
68 pages
ISBN 0-9737630-0-0

This is an outstanding new book about the people, resources and changes in the Sahtu region in the lower reaches of the Mackenzie Valley in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT). Prompted by accelerating changes in this largely pristine and intact natural region (there are no paved roads here) since 1996, the Sahtu GIS project – led especially by the Government of the NWT – has compiled numerous databases on ecological, socio-cultural and economic resource distribution, trends and potential.

For those who have worked in more remote natural regions for a while, the whole approach here and such a book’s utility will be obvious. I hope and expect that this new-age approach will be followed elsewhere, ahead of the conventional wave of industrial developments and change, so that those who have to make the big hard decisions about the future will be sufficiently well-informed of the full range of values at stake, and that their decisions will indeed be in the best long-term interest for all people in the region, and the natural resources on which we all ultimately depend.

Beyond the obvious technical importance for today’s decisionmakers this book would make a wonderful high school or university geography class resource in any country.

Peter Ewins