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Taku River Tlingit First Nation Balances Stewardship with Development in Historic Deal with B.C.

Taku River Tlingit First Nation will retain stewardship of much of its land while working closely with companies to develop resources and other assets, affording economic stability in the years to come.
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The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) and the province of British Columbia have hammered out an agreement that will allow for both Native stewardship of ancestral lands, and responsible economic development in partnership with industry.

The Atlin Taku Land Use Plan, coming as it does after years of strife between the Tlingit and the province, is earning kudos from everyone, from aboriginal leaders, to Canadian authorities, to the mining industry and even environmental groups. It’s being hailed as potentially precedent-setting, and a model for other First Nations.

"The Taku River Tlingits have looked forward to this day for a very long time," said John Ward, the nation’s elected spokesperson, at the signing with British Columbia Premier Christy Clark. "I wish to congratulate and thank the members of my First Nation for their hard work and dedication in bringing our 'Tlatsini Vision' to life in government-to-government agreements, which will protect our lands and Tlingit Khustiyxh, our way of life, and help make our dreams of a prosperous and sustainable future a reality."

He also thanked Clark and her government for their willingness to work with the Taku River Tlinget.

"It is a win for the TRTFN, for B.C. and indeed for the country,” he said.

The agreement puts to rest the years of contention over land use that culminated in legal strife between 2000 and 2004, when the Taku River Tlingit and B.C. fought it out before the Supreme Court of Canada.

"This agreement represents a clear shift from conflict to collaboration between B.C. and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation," said Clark at the July 20 signing. "This balanced approach means a brighter future for families in the northwest and opens the territory for business, bringing new jobs and opportunities, while protecting key environmental and cultural values."

Dealing with freshwater-fish and wildlife management as well as land use, the agreement lays out a network of protected areas that preserves key cultural and environmentally significant areas while allowing for controlled, sustainable development in others.

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It covers a total of three million hectares, or 11,500 square miles—about the size of Vancouver Island—in northwestern British Columbia, the British Columbia government said in its statement announcing the agreement. All told, including the 301,140-hectare (1,162 square mile) Atlin Park, 800,000 hectares (3,089 square miles), or 26.2 percent of the Tlingit’s ancestral land—are fully protected, the B.C. government said.

The agreement establishes 13 new protected areas totaling 564,782 hectares, or 2,180.6 square miles, that include the Atlin River and Monarch Mountain, key cultural areas for the Taku River Tlinget. There are also 11 resource-management zones of 473,684 hectares, or 1,829 square miles.

The plan protects the Taku Watershed, one of British Columbia's most significant salmon watersheds, also supports the largest commercial salmon run in southeastern Alaska. Bear and caribou habitat is also protected by a ban on commercial forestry in a large portion of the plan area.

At the same time, a good 90 percent of the areas that appear most promising for mineral deposits are now open to exploration and potential development, the provincial government said. The region was one of the few regions in British Columbia that did not yet have a land-use plan in place.

Environmentalists and other groups are hailing the agreement as the perfect combination of stewardship, cultural conservation and sustainable development.

“The plan makes significant commitments around conservation of some of the most important fish and wildlife habitat on the coast and, importantly, does so in the context of respect for First Nations rights, environmental protection and future mining development projects,” said Larry Innes, executive director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, after the signing ceremony.

Tides Canada, a public foundation dedicated to social justice and the environment, has established a $5 million endowment to help pay for the plan’s implementation. And the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) noted the plan as unique and precedent-setting.

“The government-to-government agreement respecting Atlin Taku land use is a historic moment not only for the Taku River Tlingit, but also for all First Nations across the country,” said AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. “These kinds of initiatives, founded in partnership and respect, will set standards for other agreements in the future. We have always maintained our right to say ‘no’ when development is not responsible or sustainable, but we can extend our hand in partnership when the conditions are right.”