Ecological Value of Mackenzie Watershed Far Greater Than Natural Resources

Major report says real ecological wealth of the Mackenzie watershed is huge, far bigger than gas and minerals: The joint Land Use Plan for Dehcho First Nation is solution to capturing this future, Norwegian says.

FORT SIMPSON — Feb. 6, 2007 –A new and more holistic way of analyzing the natural wealth of the Mackenzie River watershed, says that while the GDP values of the watershed’s 1.7 million sq kms are about $41.5 billion-a year, the actual natural capital value is worth 10 times this or $448.3 billion a year. This study, commissioned by the Canadian Boreal Institute (CBI) is billed as the first watershed-based natural capital review in Canada.

“What Boral’s report is saying is saying in effect is that our final Land Use Plan which covers more than 20 million hectares of the Mackenzie watershed is the right way to go,” said Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Deco First Nation (DFN) at his office Fort Simpson NWT, as another round of land claims negotiations with Canada was about to start. “It’s too bad the Federal government declines to accept this amazing plan which we developed with Canada. The governments and industries up here simply cannot see beyond the boom and bust development of making quick bucks for a few people and ignoring the real value of social, cultural and economic sustainable development which protect these intact ecosystems. This slash and burn mentality is simply no good for anyone,” Norwegian said, after being briefed about the report which was released Jan 31.

In 2001 the DFN and Canada established a joint Land Use Planning Committee and gave it a mandate to develop a comprehensive land use plan. The final complete Land Use Plan has been praised by public interest groups and land use planning experts as an exceptional model of cooperation and balancing the interests of conservation and development. The plan was completed and approved by the DFN at in June, 2006. It now requires approval by Canada and the GNWT before it can be implemented.

In the Settlement Agreement signed in July 2005 to end the DFN legal challenge to the environmental assessment of the Mackenzie Gas Project (MGP), Canada promised to implement an approved Land Use Plan “as soon as possible after the plan’s completion”. The plan has been complete since June, 2006 but Canada has now informed the DFN that they will not implement the Plan because it would “protect too much land” from industrial development. Canada has demanded a reduction of more than 50 percent in the Plan’s protected areas and that the DFN must agree to surrender title to most of its lands before they will consider implementing the Plan. “In effect, Canada is now holding the Plan hostage to an agreement in our land claim negotiations. In the process they are reneging on their commitments to implement the Plan.

Spanning 1.7 million sq km (or 170 million hectares), the Mackenzie watershed rivals the size and flow rates of the world’s greatest river basins, including the Nile, Yangtse, and Amazon. The watershed is rich in other natural capital assets — intact forests, abundant, though threatened water, habitats for wildlife, rich sources of carbon, and vast deposits of oil, oil sands, natural gas and minerals.

Yet, even given its significance, the CBI report says, this great natural capital asset does not appear on Canada’s national balance sheet nor do its ecological goods and services show up in gross domestic product (GDP) — the traditional measure of economic progress.

It is both poor economics and poor accounting to not account for the total wealth of this region because governments rarely use natural capital accounts in decision-making such as negotiating land, claims with the Dehcho First Nation.

Effectively, says the Boreal report, Canada is operating blind to the total value of nature’s wealth, which is critical to the well-being of northern and ecological communities, and to our country as a whole.

The vast Boreal Forest, which stretches across the northern parts of nearly every province and territory, is one of the last great relatively untouched ecosystems left on earth.

An example of this is the value of carbon in today’s economy. Over the past 100 years Alberta has expended over 30 percent of its net above-ground forest carbon capital — which in terms of the global social cost of carbon equals an estimated $9.6 billion loss. Boreal ecosystems store more carbon in their peatlands, soils and trees than any other land-based ecosystem, including tropical rainforests. In a carbon-conscious world, decisions for the future need to better reflect the broader natural capital values of the Boreal region. However, with the crisis in climate change and destruction by fire and industrial developments like the tar sands, it may be emitting more carbon than it is sequestering.

The CBI study was commissioned to help decision-makers — federal, territorial, provincial and First Nations governments — make informed stewardship decisions that balance broader ecosystem and cultural values with sustainable economic growth. The study’s primary goal was to construct a natural capital account for the Mackenzie watershed, including a total economic valuation of the market and non-market benefits of the watershed’s natural capital.

“The federal government wants to do just the opposite while trying to paint itself green,” says the DFN leader. “Yet, by trying to reduce the number of conservation zones for development, they reduce further the amount of carbon that can be saved by the forest. Canada is being disingenuous, favouring industrial development over environmental conservation and calling itself an environmentally positive government.”

The study’s key findings:

  • the market value of the Mackenzie watershed, assessed as the region’s GDP, is estimated at $41.9 billion per year, an average of $245 per hectare
  • the non-market value of the watershed, assessed as the potential value of 17 ecosystem services produced by the region is estimated at $448.3 billion per year, an average of $2,631 per hectare;
  • the ecological goods and services provided by nature (e.g., carbon storage, water filtration, water supply) in the Mackenzie Valley and Delta contribute over 10 times more societal economic value than the GDP generated by extraction industries such as mining, construction and oil and gas. This evaluation is not intended to undervalue the resource potential, but rather to temper its value in a broader sustainability context;
  • the industrial footprint in the region covers 25.6 million hectares and the estimated cost of natural capital degradation from development is likely to be in the billions of dollars. This does not suggest that natural capital extraction should cease, but rather that there be a more prudent approach to future natural capital stewardship, so that valuable ecosystem services can be maintained while meeting human needs and economic development objectives; and
  • the stored carbon and annual carbon absorbed by forests, peatlands, wetlands and tundra are valued at an estimated $252 billion in 2005, or 56 percent of the total estimated nonmarket value of ecosystem services.

The study shows the importance and real socio-cultural-economic value of conserving natural capital, and balancing sustainable development with protecting intact ecosystems for future regional and national benefits.

But, as Norwegian asks “how do we use it wisely, how do we use it for our children and grandchildren in a way that will give them a future that is much more than boom and bust resource extraction. The answer: we use the Dehcho solution in the Dehcho territories and hope other First Nations will unite with us in action. Unfortunately, the Federal Government is opposed to going in this direction despite the finding of this latest objective report.”

Federal negotiators have turned their backs on the joint Land Use Plan, insisting that there must be land selection and a draft Agreement-in-Principle first. The LUP restricts mineral, oil and gas development on 69 percent of Dehcho territory while Canada insists on not more than 40 percent The LUP covers more than 20 million hectares of the Mackenzie watershed. Proposed conservation zones (including permanent protected areas such as national parks and national wildlife areas) are proposed for approximately half of the planning area, while the remainder is open to well-regulated development. In the general use and special management zones, land-use thresholds are established for mixed use areas in order to maintain wildlife habitat and other values, contributing to the preservation of natural capital. Thresholds are set for corridor and road density, habitat availability, minimum patch size and core areas, and stream crossing density. As the Dehcho note: “The level of conservation reflects both the high value the Dehcho communities place on protecting the land and maintaining traditional land use and occupancy, and also their commitment to long-term stewardship. It is consistent with the guiding principles of ‘respect for the land as understood and explained by the Dehcho Elders, and sustainable development.’.”

For further information contact: Grand Chief Herb Norwegian 867-695-2355/2610

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