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CPAWS mounts tour to protect Nahanni

Nahanni National Park is threatened by mining development on its borders.The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is trying to mount a rescue.

Nahanni National Park is threatened by mining development on its borders.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is trying to mount a rescue.

It picks its battles carefully.

True, the society is an advocate for wilderness conservation, but its members don’t weigh in on every clash between industrial and conservation values.

Rather, CPAWS stores its ammo, waits for timely and meaningful targets, then charges with guns blazing.

The Three Rivers campaign in North Yukon is one example. In recent years CPAWS has poured a lot of resources into advocating for protection of the Peel, Snake and Bonnet Plume rivers.

But the most recent CPAWS campaign is focused on Nahanni National Park.

This is the wilderness zone in the Northwest Territories made famous by former Prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who — legend has it — was so impressed by the beauty of the South Nahanni River valley that he immediately made 4,766 square kilometres of the river corridor into a national park, after laying eyes on it for the first time in 1970.

“It is frankly touched by magic,” said Harvey Locke, a CPAWS special advisor.

“The Nahanni was the first World Heritage natural site registered, in the company of the Galapagos and Yellowstone,” Locke said from Toronto on Thursday.

“It has extraordinary canyon land forms, it has really fascinating karst topography, which is a fancy way of saying lots of caves and tunnels and sinkholes in limestone.

“They are the most developed karst formations in the world, with caves that have three different climates inside them.

“It’s just an astonishing place.”

Locke, a former CPAWS president, was named a Canadian leader of the 21st century to watch for in the Canadian edition of Time Magazine in 1999.

On Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse, Locke will host a presentation about the Nahanni with wildlife expert John Weaver and local entrepreneur Neil Hartling, who owns and operates Nahanni River Adventures based in Whitehorse.

“We’re going to 17 cities from coast to coast, talking about opportunities to expand the park,” said Locke.

“We started in Toronto in November. We’ve done 13 cities, and it’s going to turn out to be 18 cities because we’re going to wind up in Ottawa.”

Locke doesn’t know whom he’ll be talking to in Ottawa on February 4, since the current federal election may have selected a new government by then.

But the Nahanni is a non-partisan issue, so it shouldn’t matter who takes power in Canada, he said.

“This is what I’d call a Canadian issue, as opposed to a partisan issue.”

The Nahanni watershed is the southern “anchor” of a wilderness corridor that CPAWS wants protected from industrial development, said Locke.

“We believe there should be a big protected area system in the north, which is the Three Rivers, and a big protected area system in the south, which is the South Nahanni watershed,” he said.

“There needs to be good management and connections in between them, but those are the two big pieces that we think really matter, for nature.

“It’s kind of like doing Banff and Jasper and Yellowstone 100 years ago.”

The Nahanni is home to grizzly bears, woodland caribou, wolves, lynx and Dall sheep.

“In addition to that, it’s the place of cultural origin for some of the basic creation stories for the Deh Cho Dene,” said Locke.

“Some sites are basically the equivalent of Mount Sinai.”

The CPAWS initiative follows the lead of the Deh Cho First Nations, which signed a five-year “interim protection” agreement with the federal government in 2003, protecting 20,000 square kilometres from industrial development.

But one third of the South Nahanni watershed remains open to mineral staking and development, and Ottawa has continued to issue permits for mining prospects and exploration.

Vancouver-based Canadian Zinc Corp. has proposed a base metal mine at Prairie Creek, upstream from the park.

A mine site already exists. There is old infrastructure in place — buildings, barrels of cyanide — that has sat idle for 20 years.

The mine has never operated.

Canadian Zinc wants to activate the mine, and CPAWS is doing its best to shut the project down before it begins.

“There’s no road in to it now, so they want to get a permit to put a road in,” said Locke.

“The existing park was designed to prevent hydroelectric development from ruining the river, so it follows the corridor of the river but it doesn’t capture the watershed.”

CPAWS wants the federal government to make a land-use decision, which is why the Nahanni tour will culminate in Ottawa.

 “We do not oppose mining everywhere in the world, but we don’t believe it’s an appropriate use in this geologically unstable and exceptionally valuable area,” said Locke.

“We believe a land-use decision needs to be made that would protect the entire watershed and exclude the mine.”