The Taku River Tlingit First Nation in Atlin, B.C., has declared a vast swath of its traditional territory in northern B.C. off-limits to mining and other extractive-resource development.
The First Nation has named the 1.8-million hectare Taku River watershed an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA), according to Tlingit law. The one-page declaration, signed by six representatives of the First Nation, says it covers "all lands that bear waters flowing into the Taku River."
According to the declaration, the IPCA "protects critical landscapes while providing for a diversified economic future," by setting aside 60 per cent of the watershed for protection. That means mining would be off-limits in those areas, while things such as tourism, research and restoration work would be allowed.
In the remaining 40 per cent, "respectful mineral and other development" would be allowed in areas of high mineral potential.
"Our declaration is derived from decades of interviews and work that our previous elders had provided to our nation around the protected areas, the areas that mean the most to us as Tlingit," said Charmaine Thom, spokesperson for the First Nation and one of the signatories to the declaration.
She said the Taku River watershed is "the heart of who we are."
"We harvest our salmon there. We do our harvesting of moose there," she said.
According to Thom, the timing is right to make such a declaration. She says it aligns with biodiversity and climate change initiatives of both the federal and B.C. governments.
"We've always known those areas to be of special significance to [Taku River Tlingit]. But the opportunity to put additional protections and an IPCA on it is here, so we've capitalized on that," she said.
"Our elders today, every one of them had agreed that this is an area that needs additional protection."
Kimberly Heinemeyer is with Round River Conservation Studies, an ecological research organization that's worked with the Taku River Tlingit for the last 25 years providing scientific and technical support for developing conservation plans. She says the IPCA declaration is a significant milestone.
"It's a really exciting and monumental achievement for the nation," Heinemeyer said.
"It's the nation's vision for those lands that they need, for their cultural resilience, for healthy wildlife, for healthy water, for healthy fish."
Declaration 'can be discussed,' say B.C. gov't
The declaration document calls on Canada and the province "to recognize the Taku IPCA by aligning Crown laws, workings and decisions in the Taku with Tlingit law and to recognize the Taku River Tlingit as decision-makers in our territory."
"This declaration is an invitation to other governments and to interested parties to support and witness us in developing a sustainable and resilient future for the Taku," it states.
Neither Nathan Cullen, B.C.'s minister of Water, Land, and Resource Stewardship, nor Murray Rankin, minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, were available for interviews about the IPCA.
Cullen, however, issued a written statement, saying the provincial government's approach to IPCAs is for them "to be addressed through government-to-government collaborative processes like modernized land use planning."
"This ensures that economic, environmental, social, and cultural values are considered, that collaborative processes can be built with First Nations and that robust engagement can be undertaken with stakeholders, local government, and the public," the statement reads.
It says B.C. and the Taku River Tlingit meet regularly through a government-to-government forum "where this declaration can be discussed."
"The Province has a responsibility to respectfully work with other First Nations that overlap the proposed IPCA and with communities and stakeholders that may be impacted," it states.
Chantelle Schultz, senior negotiator with the First Nation, said she's optimistic that there is broad support for the IPCA. She calls it a "continuation" of government-to-government engagement with B.C.
"This declaration is a visible and obviously tangible way of telling the colonial governments what our children are raised to already know," she said.
"Now the rest of the world can start to recognize and get on board with supporting Indigenous nations to take care of and look after the values on the land that our elders have been telling us to do. And we know we can do it, we just haven't been given the space to do so."