If he wanted to, Prime Minister Paul Martin could take a decision right now that would protect one of Earth's most magnificent, yet fragile, places -- the Northwest Territories' boreal forest. There, eagles soar, and woodland caribou, Dall's sheep and grizzly bears roam; there, more than 300 kinds of lichen grow in mist-shrouded valleys, clinging to cliffs that soar higher than those of the Grand Canyon. But the Prime Minister doesn't have time to waste. Today, a mining company is pushing to begin operations in the Nahanni wilderness.
Revered in the traditional stories of local aboriginal people, the Nahanni is 35,000 square kilometres that local first nations want protected from industrial development. And it's a place for which the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has been advocating with increasing urgency.
At its heart, Nahanni National Park Reserve and World Heritage Site protects a corridor along part of the South Nahanni River. The park only covers one-seventh of the South Nahanni watershed. Less than 35 kilometres upstream from the park reserve, on the banks of Prairie Creek, a small mining company, Canadian Zinc Corp., is itching to fire up a mine site developed in the 1980s, but abandoned prior to startup. The world does not need this mine. Local first nations communities do not support it; it has not had a recent environmental impact assessment. And it's within an ecosystem that Canada promised the world to protect.
The federal government has already committed to expanding Nahanni National Park Reserve. Parks Canada is studying the area and consulting with local communities about how far the park's boundaries should be extended. But that process will take at least another year to complete. Meanwhile, Canadian Zinc's owners are doing all they can to get the mine operating as soon as possible.
But there's a catch: The mine does not yet have permission to operate beyond exploration activities. If Ottawa so chose, it could say no to this mine. There are abundant reasons for the government to take this route, and to take it now, while there is still time.
Canadian Zinc's proposed mine poses a serious environmental threat: The mine site is perched right beside Prairie Creek, in a region vulnerable to landslides, flash floods and earthquakes. The mine's haul road would cross a landscape that is highly vulnerable to potential chemical spills and groundwater contamination. Forty tonnes of cyanide sit in rusting barrels a few hundred metres from the creek -- part of the legacy of the failed startup more than 20 years ago, and a prime example of some mining companies' lack of commitment to environmental responsibility.
I'll admit to strong bias here. Nahanni is very special to me. My father, as prime minister, was instrumental in creating Nahanni National Park Reserve in 1972 to protect the river from a proposed hydro-electric dam. A few years later, the United Nations selected Nahanni as one of the first World Heritage Sites, recognizing its significance as a unique boreal wilderness area.
For years, scientists have warned that the park is just too small. Too small to protect the woodland caribou and grizzly bears, and too small to protect the fragile and unparalleled karst limestone landscapes that lie north of the current park. Karst is one of the features that makes the Nahanni a globally significant natural area. World-renowned karst expert Derek Ford has called the Nahanni karst the most important example of Arctic or subarctic karst known on the planet. By its very nature, this landscape of caves, canyons, sinkholes and underground rivers and streams is extremely vulnerable to groundwater contamination. Water moves swiftly through its "secret landscape," feeding directly into the South Nahanni River. Canadian Zinc wants to build a haul road through the heart of the karstlands to carry chemicals and metal concentrates to and from the Prairie Creek mine site.
Two years ago, I stood for the first time above the Nahanni's Virginia Falls, on a journey organized by CPAWS. Those falls are twice the height of Niagara. When I stood there, I pledged to see completed the work my father started more than 30 years ago -- the expansion of the national park to protect the entire South Nahanni Watershed, including the Nahanni karstlands.
This magical place inspired my father to act. I, too, am inspired to do what I can, because the Nahanni offers us the opportunity to show that Canada values its natural wealth and knows how to take care of it -- for our children, and for the world.
Justin Trudeau speaks tonight at the launch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's national Nahanni Forever tour in Toronto.