Guardians of the Boreal

Guardians of the Boreal Forest

In Canada's far north, First Nations are leading an ambitious campaign to protect crucial wildlife habitats in the world's largest remaining intact biome

By Andrew McKean


The road to Lutsel K'e isn't a road at all. For nearly half the year it's a snowmobile trail across frozen Great Slave Lake, with segments that stitch in and out of scraggly spruce stands. The rest of the year, the only way in and out of this remote First Nations community is on a boat large enough to handle the heaving swells of the immense lake or by prop plane from Yellowknife, the provincial capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, located 120 miles due west.

Airplanes circle the dirt runway before their final approach, to ensure that a moose or bear isn't loafing on the landing strip. Residents of the village welcome the planes because they deliver visiting relatives, fresh vegetables, medicine, and other supplies. But villagers, who are members of the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation, don't rely on visitation. They live as they have for generations, trapping pine marten in the surrounding scrub forest, fishing for lake trout, netting small herring - called cisco - which they'll dry, and hunting caribou and moose in the bush that extends for hundreds of miles in all directions.

Despite this region's remoteness, the outside world has found its way to Lutsel K'e. In the last decade, industrial-scale diamond mines have been punched into the bush north of the lake, and every so often oil and gas prospectors come through, scouting locations for seismic lines and ice roads to transport heavy equipment.

There are seasonal visitors of another kind. The wetlands and rock-ringed lakes of the territory are the primary breeding grounds of millions of waterfowl that arrive just as the ice leaves flowages that have never seen a power line or a motorboat. On warm spring evenings, the din of so many breeding pairs of white-winged scoters, sandhill cranes, and dabbling ducks like American green-winged teal in this wilderness of muskeg and birch can be unsettlingly raucous.

Other seasonal movements define the natural rhythm of the Canadian North: spawning runs of lake trout and arctic char and the migration of caribou between winter habitat to the south and calving grounds so far north that the pines give way to permafrost plains that stretch as far as land goes.

It's not only here in the central Northwest Territories that this combination of astonishing natural abundance and wildness defines the landscape. Across northern Canada, from the Yukon to Newfoundland, some 1 billion acres of what is called the Boreal Forest have been largely untouched by industrial development, not to mention roads, cell phone service, or retail stores. That's nearly two-thirds of Canada's landmass. It's the largest intact biome in the world, and because of its importance - not only to the ducks and loons and moose that live there, but to clean water and clean air across the continent - another type of visitor has been making the rounds of the Boreal. These are environmental scientists, including biologists and geographical information systems technicians with Ducks Unlimited, who along with First Nations guardians are working to survey and map key wetlands and wildlife habitats as well as culturally significant sites.

Canada's First Nations are at the forefront of a partnership that seeks to conserve hundreds of millions of acres of the Boreal Forest over the next decade. This indigenous-led conservation campaign is working to protect remarkable landscapes, to limit development to suitable sites, and to conserve wetlands and other wildlife habitats on a scale the world has never seen. The Canadian federal, provincial, and territorial governments; Ducks Unlimited; foundations; and many other conservation partners are providing crucial funding and technical assistance to make that bold vision a reality.

An Audacious Goal

DU has been working with First Nations and many other partners to conserve Canada's Boreal Forest for over two decades, motivated by the certainty that protecting functional landscapes is easier and costs far less than repairing them after they've been impacted by development. Waterfowl biologists, in particular, operate under a second certainty: the remote, vast Boreal Forest and its innumerable wetlands is the continent's second "Duck Factory," rivaling the notoriously productive Prairie Pothole Region in its importance to continental waterfowl populations.

Over the years, First Nations have negotiated limits to development in pristine areas of the northern forest and advocated for protective land-use designations in others. DU has assisted their efforts by systematically measuring the productivity of the Boreal, quantifying things like annual waterfowl production, the amount of carbon sequestered in the region's permafrost, and even the tonnage of biomass in its extensive forests.

All that groundwork is now coming to fruition. The Canadian government is seeking to protect 17 percent of the country's landmass from development by the end of this year. The target is contained in what's called Canada's Nature Legacy, the country's answer to the United Nations' goal for nations to conserve at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas inside their borders to preserve biodiversity and what are known as "ecosystem services." Those are the benefits that society receives from naturally functioning systems, like freshwater produced by pristine watersheds and carbon captured by living plants and healthy soils. First Nations will play a central role in achieving that goal, and the Canadian government has committed up to $1 billion to fund Boreal conservation work, with matching funds provided by an array of partners, including DU, Wetlands America Trust, other conservation organizations, foundations, and natural resource extraction companies.

More than 1.5 billion acres of Boreal Forest stretch across Canada and Alaska. Emerging threats to this pristine, resource-rich landscape are prompting new conservation measures to protect it.

DU is unique among its peer group because its work in the Canadian North spans a generation, says Dr. Scott Stephens, DU Canada's director of conservation for the Boreal and prairie regions. For much of its history, DU's work focused on protecting and restoring wetland and grassland habitats on the prairies. But for the past two decades, DU has looked even farther north, to the Boreal Forest, where in some years a full 40 percent of the continent's waterfowl population settles to nest and raise their young. The Nature Legacy commitment confirms this conservation work in the Boreal as a national priority.

"What's new and noteworthy is that we finally have the Canadian government - at the highest levels - signaling that they're making a significant investment in the Boreal," Stephens says. "That provides funding but also momentum to get a lot of things done that DU has been working on for years: protecting large landscapes, developing areas that will be managed sustainably, and protecting resources that are important for waterfowl and other birds."

While Stephens is surprised at the speed at which the final conservation commitment was rendered, he says many of its attributes have been obvious for years to folks who have worked in the Boreal. "There's been a real focus on the northern forest, mostly owing to the scale of conservation that's possible there," he says. "It's millions of acres at a whack. It's the only place on earth I'm aware of where we get that amount of land under a single umbrella of a conservation project."

Managing Change

You might well ask, why bother? The Boreal Forest is so extensive and remote that it's insulated from change. You don't get there easily, and you certainly don't stay in such cold, lonely country comfortably.

But that very same scale of the place, and its abundant natural resources, which have remained out of reach until recently, make it an appealing destination for prospectors eager to tap unclaimed riches. Diamond miners have already made inroads in many remote spots of the bush, and pipelines have cut pencil-straight swaths through portions of the forest. Barrett Lenoir, DU Canada's manager of Boreal programs, has seen much of the change firsthand. "People in the North generally don't like to see change, because it means caribou migrations change, or water systems and fisheries change, or their traplines change," he says. "But change is coming, and our job is to ensure that residents have a role in shaping it."

In Lutsel K'e, the remote town on the shore of Great Slave Lake, a generation of villagers drifted away to jobs at the diamond mines. Meanwhile, residents who have remained have noted that the ice roads that service the mines in the winter months have altered caribou migrations. But Canada's new Nature Legacy program includes a remarkable provision: to not only accommodate sustainable industrial investment in the north, but to utilize First Nations members as consultants and guides to direct appropriate development.

It's an idea that has been percolating across the Boreal for a decade, but it has its roots in both Australia and in Canada's Maritime Provinces, says Larry Innes, strategic adviser to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a group of First Nations conservationists who hope to guide development in ways that sustain native culture and resources but also allow residents to participate in the modern economy.

"Agreements between the Australian government and aboriginal communities to cede oversight of aboriginal land is the original idea of the Indigenous Guardian Program," says Innes, who helped negotiate a provision of the Nature Legacy commitment that requires native communities to be central to any Boreal conservation initiative.

"Learning from early successes in Australia, in the early 1990s the Innu Nation in Labrador figured out that development can be sustainable, as long as it's done within the framework of natural systems," Innes says. "The Innu organized a small environmental protection office, just as a wave of forestry development came along, including a logging project in areas the Innu knew were not only spiritually important to their community, but ecologically important to the Labrador caribou network."

The community steered logging away from those areas and toward other, more productive spots, saving timber companies untold time and expense in litigation and unproductive work. Meanwhile, the Innu trained members as forestry technicians, not by sending them to a university, but by embedding them with tribal elders, who conveyed how their community has thrived since the beginning of memory in a healthy forest. Those native "forest guardians" were hired by companies interested in logging tribal ground in a way that was least impactful to natural systems, including the caribou network.

"In Labrador, partners soon realized that there was a huge value- added dimension," Innes says. "Collaboration between First Nations and industry created greater transparency and acceptance of development, but there was also a critical knowledge transfer. Companies learned from guardians about areas that were problematic to develop, and guardians learned valuable vocational skills."

In native circles this collaborative approach to resource development is called "two eyes seeing," Innes says. It means looking at resource issues from not only the technical and quantitative perspectives, but also from spiritual and cultural perspectives.

"Don't forget who you are and where you're from," Innes says. "Those are good ways of looking at the world, no matter who you are." This model of indigenous cooperation, including the term "guardians," will be a fundamental part of how conservation will be accomplished across the Boreal Forest in accordance with the Nature Legacy commitment. In fact, it already is.

A Framework for the Future

Near the Yukon's border with the Northwest Territories, an energy company's plans to replace a section of pipeline under the Mackenzie River stalled as native communities worried that it could leak oil into what the native Dehcho call "big river." Instead of stopping the project, the Dehcho First Nations were brought in as environmental management partners, and Dehcho pipeline guardians were activated to monitor water quality and wildlife impacts and to conduct right-of-way restoration work. The pipeline was replaced, and indigenous communities had assurances from their own members that the work protected resources vital to the Dehcho culture and economy. Plus, guardians received a paycheck and employment benefits.

Back in Lutsel K'e, Steven Nitah explains how his Dene community will be part of the national commitment to Boreal conservation, not only safeguarding populations of waterfowl but also ensuring that youth in his community have sustainable employment, and that elders continue to have caribou roasts for festivals and moose hides for shelter. Nitah is a longtime Dene hereditary chief and negotiator for First Nations interests in Boreal conservation. He says any agreement offering his homeland for development should start with the Denes' perspective.

"Understand that our view is that we are placed in what we call homelands by the creator with instructions to take care of these places," Nitah says. "Humans are not above nature. We've accumulated that knowledge through thousands of years of intimate relationships with our homeland."

In Lutsel K'e, community members were interested in economic alternatives to sending a generation of residents to work in diamond mines. Nitah, Innes, and others helped create a natural reserve around the village that will be co-managed by the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation. The 6.5-million-acre Thaidene Nene Indigenous Protected Area not only preserves crucial waterfowl breeding habitats, important caribou migration corridors, and sacred Dene cultural sites, but also gives Lutsel K'e residents employment as game wardens, park interpreters, fishing guides, and wilderness first responders.

It's a good example of inclusive conservation, says Innes, and a stark alternative to what he calls the "stockade conservation" that's defined wildland management in the past. "That's where you draw a line around a special area, give it a new name, kick everybody inside the line out, and then charge admission to the people who want to come in," Innes says. "This new model asks the people who know the area the best to stay and to help the rest of us understand why the area is so special."

Dr. Fritz Reid, DU Inc.'s director of conservation for the Boreal and Arctic, says the technical and the cultural align surprisingly well. "There have been many times that we have provided mapping assistance as a community makes a land-use decision, and pointed out areas of high importance to caribou, for instance. Tribal members look at us and say, ‘We know. That's why we've given that place a special name that means Place of the Caribou.'"

Reid and Stephens say that Ducks Unlimited will continue to offer technical assistance as Canada's commitment to Boreal conservation widens. "We feel like our best role is to help communities make decisions that not only benefit themselves but benefit all those ecosystem services that the rest of us rely on," Stephens says. "Our planning tells us that we have the capability to conserve 600 million acres in the Boreal. Conservation on that scale is hard to fathom for many people."

Back in Yellowknife, Lenoir relates a story that combines elements of indigenous belief, conservation, and a sort of Boreal wisdom. "Up in the community of Deline, on Great Bear Lake, there's a prophesy that when the rest of the world is ruined, all the people on Earth will come to the lake, which is the heart of everything," he says. "That's what the North is to people who live here. It's the heart of everything."

Based in northeastern Montana, longtime writer and editor Andrew McKean reports on a variety of subjects pertaining to the outdoors and conservation.