On fertile ground
Y2Y delegates seek to protect land

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 18/98) - The Liidlii Kue First Nations people have found allies in their struggle to protect the land and wildlife, according to Chief Rita Cli.

Those allies came to Fort Simpson this past weekend for the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) conference. Close to 70 delegates from environmental and other non-governmental organizations were here to help further their cause of conservation, in and around the Mackenzie and Selwyn Mountains in particular.

"Our elders said our land is just like our heartbeat -- we should protect it in any way we can. We live and breathe the land," Cli said, noting that the government should remember they are the land's original people, "not landed immigrants."

The land moratorium put in place by the Deh Cho First Nations has been ignored by the government, and that cannot continue, she said. Therefore, the band decided to host this year's conference.

"There's really a lot of help out there that we can tap into," said Cli, who added that the band is not opposed to well-planned development that makes a minimal impact on the environment.

The watershed areas are of primary concern, she said, because water is more precious than all the gold or gas that the land has to offer.

Ben Alexander, a program associate with the Sonoran Institute in Montana, is one person who hopes to return to the North to conduct research and make further presentations. His area of expertise lies in the environment and the economy as well as demographics.

"In the South, we begin with restoration. Here, we can talk about protection. I've never been to a place where that's the case," he said, referring to the relative lack of development and environmental degradation.

Steve Gooderham, regional forester for the Department of Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development, concurred. He said "good, sensible harvesting practices" by the First Nations' people and their logging partners have ensured that there has been no serious damage to the forests in this area.

Alexander emphasized that such practices can continue and the economy can flourish at the same time. Research has shown that resource industries in a particular region can be in decline yet employment and the economy can continue to grow, he said. As well, in the South the fastest growing economies are near protected lands and numerous businesses cited the healthy state of the environment as the primary region for their location, according to Alexander.

Juri Peepre, chair of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (Yukon) said this year's conference was the first he know of in which conservation groups from the NWT, Yukon and B.C. have conferred with representatives from First Nations peoples.

"To me, that was really exciting," he said. "It was a really good exchange."

In the North, the key is that the people are connected to the land and land claims agreements are good tools for conservation, Peepre said.