By Doug Struck
Updated: 11:36 p.m. MT Oct 13, 2006
TORONTO - The government and native groups agreed Friday to move forward to preserve an area almost four times the size of Yellowstone Park in far northern Canada, and said they would study making other areas off-limits to burgeoning diamond and uranium mining interests there.
The agreement begins the work to make a huge national park on the eastern edge of the Great Slave Lake, a frigid, pristine area of the Northwest Territories prowled by grizzlies and grazed by caribou.
The small native band living in the area seeks to call it Thaydene Nene National Park, which means "land of the ancestors."
"Nowhere is the opportunity more real" for wilderness protection "than in northern Canada," said Canada's environment minister, Rona Ambrose, who flew to the isolated village of the Lutsel K'e Dene native tribe to sign the memorandum of understanding with Chief Adeline Jonasson.
The area is included in land claimed by the natives, whose tribe -- named after "the place of small fish" -- numbers about 400 and lives on a granite point jutting into the lake. The Dene have lived in the region for at least 7,000 years, they say. Jonasson called the agreement a "significant step toward the conservation of our sacred places and cultural heritage."
The move will put some limits on the surge of mining claims being staked in northwestern Canada, an area of lore and legendary tales from the great gold rushes of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since diamonds were discovered in the Northwest Territories in 1991, Canada has become the world's third-largest supplier. The prospect of uranium deposits in the north has brought more speculation.
In addition to the area for the new national park, Ambrose committed the government to push ahead to complete a national park system, which advocacy groups expect will include protection of other areas along the MacKenzie River Valley as national wildlife areas or national historic sites.
Environmental groups, which often consider the Conservative government hostile to their goals, applauded Friday's announcement. The government is pushing to build an 800-mile gas pipeline to bring natural gas from the Arctic Ocean through the MacKenzie River Valley to the United States. Environmentalists hope that the creation of parks and other reserves will limit the rapid increase of mining, drilling and development expected to accompany the pipeline.
They want to protect the Boreal Forest, a great green swath across North America that is vital to wildlife, summer home to many of the continent's birds and crucial to slowing global warming.
"The area is already under significant development pressure because of the diamond mining boom and the uranium boom," said Steve Kallick, director of the boreal conservation campaign for the Pew Charitable Trusts, speaking from Seattle.
"The big companies already are working the most promising claims, and there are plenty of other places where development will continue," he said. "What is new is this government is announcing that conservation will go hand in hand with that."
'It's just stunning'
The new national park touches the northern edge where the Boreal Forest turns to arctic tundra. "It's just stunning," Kallick said. "It's pristine, as though you went back in time."
The deep Great Slave Lake, an almost mythical goal for early explorers, was carved by glaciers and remains frozen eight months a year. The area includes wintering grounds for caribou and is inhabited by wolves, foxes, bears, mink, moose and lynx.
"The people of this community have a very, very close connection to the land," said Stephen Ellis, a coordinator for the Lutsel K'e Dene, speaking from the village. The details and some boundaries of the national park will be studied over the next three years, he said, "but if it came down to choosing between a diamond mine and a sacred site, this community would go with the sacred site."
Work on creating a park started nearly four decades ago but was delayed in part because of the unsettled land claims by native groups. The area being mapped for a park encompasses 8.3 million acres. Yellowstone Park, in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, is about 2.2 million acres.
In February, British Columbia announced the creation of Great Bear Rainforest, a park about twice the size of Yellowstone.
Special correspondent Natalia Alexandrova contributed to this report.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company