BC Hydro has been quietly offering to transfer thousands of hectares of Crown land to First Nations in compensation for the $9-billion Site C dam.
The secrecy surrounding the proposed land transfers is raising questions about the transparency of the process, and one chief says he suspects BC Hydro is making the offers in the hope of dividing First Nations on the project. There are also concerns that the deals could cut off roads and trails, reducing public access to other Crown land in the Peace River region.
BC Hydro is declining to say how much land is being made available, but court and regional district records show that more than 5,000 hectares have been offered to four of the eight First Nations in the region. All eight bands have been made land offers, but details are not available.
Most of the First Nations in the region are opposed to the Site C project and it is unclear how many of the offers might be accepted.
The Saulteau First Nations reached an "impact benefits agreement" with BC Hydro last summer that included land transfers, but it has not yet been signed and its contents remain secret.
"BC Hydro has been consulting and engaging with aboriginal groups about Site C since 2007 and offers of accommodation have been made to all of the First Nations significantly affected by the project," company spokesman Craig Fitzsimmons said in an e-mail. However, he declined to say how much land is being offered. "As negotiations are ongoing, we are not able to provide you with any details about our discussions with First Nations," Mr. Fitzsimmons stated.
Jim Little, a retired B.C. government land manager who is now a BC Wildlife Federation member, is worried about the lack of transparency around the proposed transfers.
"My concern is that ... most people don't know what the government is negotiating," he said.
"If you were an individual applying for [Crown] land, you'd have to advertise in the newspaper that you are applying for such and such piece of land. It would be in the paper and the BC Gazette," Mr. Little said, referring to a publication that contains legal notices and government proclamations. "That's a problem. There should be a message to the public [about these deals] rather than letting them find out after it's happened."
Last year, responding to a court challenge to the project launched by some First Nations, BC Hydro disclosed it had offered more than 2,000 hectares in total to the West Moberly, Prophet River and McLeod Lake bands. The land, along with payments of more than $48-million over 70 years, was proposed to "directly accommodate the residual impacts" of the Site C dam.
In addition, the July, 2013, minutes for the Peace River Regional District show that BC Hydro has offered more than 3,500 hectares to the Blueberry River First Nations as part of a Site C impact benefits agreement.
The minutes state that the land transfers could take place once Site C construction had begun. "In the interim, the land will be protected from disposition for other uses by a Section 16 Land Act reserve," the minutes state.
The controversial Site C project received environmental approval in 2014, and forest clearing at the construction site began this winter.
But First Nations, environmental groups and local ranchers are still fighting to stop the project because of concerns over treaty rights, the environment and flooding of farmland. There is a protest camp in the area and several bands are in court challenging the project.
Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nation said he believes BC Hydro is trying to split First Nations by offering land and money in impact benefit agreements.
West Moberly rejected a deal because the band is opposed to the project, Mr. Willson said, adding he couldn't remember how much land was offered but believed it was equivalent to the amount to be flooded by the Site C reservoir – or about 5,000 hectares.
"But we are not negotiating. We are opposed to Site C," he said. "The land being flooded is irreplaceable [because] there is nothing else like that in terms of its wildlife productivity."
Gerry Paille, a BC Wildlife Federation spokesman, said his organization does not object to bands getting land in compensation for Site C, but he's concerned that access trails and roads that go through the land could be cut off.
He said two parcels covering thousands of hectares identified for transfer to the Blueberry River First Nations is of particular concern, because the land controls access to prime hunting areas in the Halfway Valley.
"The issue to us is if they don't maintain access through those two pieces of land, it's essentially going to block that whole valley off for other users," Mr. Paille said. "Now for ordinary citizens of B.C., existing access has to be maintained even when there is a land transfer. But we're hearing there are very sympathetic ears to give [the Blueberry band] control over it."
Blueberry River Chief Marvin Yahey couldn't be reached for comment.