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Canada's Newest National Treasure: Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve

A new national park announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on August 22 not only includes aboriginal stewardship as a cornerstone but also guarantees the preservation of a major river’s headwaters, said the parties involved in the creation of the Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve.

Canada's 44th national park is on land that is dear to aboriginals “not only for its majestic beauty but also for its special sacred power,” said Frank Andrew, grand chief of the Sahtu Dene, which along with the Métis of the Tulita District will play a major role in the park’s conservation and preservation efforts, to The Star. "Land protection is so important for our people.”

“Our ancestors travelled all the traditional trails,” Andrew said in a speech at the announcement, according to The Star, “over the mountains, with mothers, with grandmothers carrying babies and toddlers on their back.”

A park reserve is the same as a national park except that it is subject to an aboriginal land claim, in this case by the Sahtu Dene and Métis of the Tulita District. In a reserve, traditional hunting, fishing, trapping and spiritual activities are allowed and local aboriginals play a role in the co-management of the park.

Located in the southwestern part of the Northwest Territories (NWT), the park’s 1,800-square-mile (4,850 square kilometers) will, together with the adjacent Nahanni National Park Reserve to the south, protect approximately 86 percent of the watershed of the South Nahanni River, one of the country’s prime wilderness rivers and a designated Canadian Heritage River.

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The South Nahanni River, with its deep gorges and whitewater rapids, has been called the most visually diverse river on the planet. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, canoing down the river in 1972, dubbed it the “greatest river trip in the world.”

The park is named after a mountain at the river’s headwaters that has strong spiritual significance for local Natives and means "stands like a porcupine" in the language of the Dene, who have lived and hunted in this area for thousands of years. Grizzly bears, mountain woodland caribou, mountain goats and other wildlife inhabit this spectacular northern wildernes area.

For the Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve, an Impact and Benefit Plan was developed that ensures the park will generate employment for Native people, who will contribute to the stewardship and conservation of the lands and waters and educate visitors on the natural history and culture of the region.

Originally, the land for the new park was meant to be an extension of Nahanni National Park Reserve. But the Dene people in the area lobbied for a completely different park than the Nahanni, which is claimed by the Dene of the Deh Cho region.

Five years in negotiation, the creation of Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve is not without controversy. The area is rich in mineral resources, and the final park boundaries were selected so that the maximum amount of mineral resources lie outside the park, which pleased mining companies while disappointing environmentalists. New mineral staking is prohibited in the park, but existing mineral claims and leases will be respected. The government sees the park as striking a balance between preserving wildlife habitat while continuing to allow for natural resource development.

For decades Canada has incorporated aboriginal stewardship into the fabric of its national parks system, with dozens such collaborations around the country, by way of protecting and preserving natural areas, history and culture. In addition to 44 national parks, Parks Canada, which has suffered recent budget cuts, manages 167 national historic sites and four national marine conservation areas.