The threat here is development that could follow the construction of a pipeline likely to be built along the Mackenzie River from the Great Slave Lake to rich gas fields near its estuary in the Arctic Ocean. The result: While aboriginal hunting will continue, any development activity that is allowed cannot interfere with the conservation of wildlife.
The seeds for the conservation effort were planted in 1996 a few miles away in Yellowknife, when the Northwest Territories began a process call the Protected Area Strategy. The aim was to turn nearly a quarter of the territories' land into wilderness areas. The process brings together First Nations, as Native Canadians are called here, conservation biologists, business interests and various layers of government. The first three agree on what to save, and the governments enshrine that into law.
The conservation effort is a marked departure from the paradigm that has driven preservation to date in Canada's southern half – a philosophy that caribou biologist Justina Ray, head of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, describes as "develop what we want and try to salvage the best of what’s left." Whether it will work depends on how it’s implemented, she adds.
Overall, the effort recasts how one of the world's last intact ecosystems will be preserved and managed. All indications suggest the northern latitudes are changing far more rapidly than expected in response to climate change. As more of the boreal opens to development, the protections become crucial, proponents say.
One of the package's more progressive elements is its inclusion of carbon mitigation. Ontario explicitly mentions carbon sequestration and storage as an objective in its conservation plan. And an accord between a loggers trade group, the Forest Products Association of Canada, and environmental groups calls on industry to reduce greenhouse gas "along the full life cycle from forest to end of product life."
The effort does have its detractors.
In Ontario, logging communities have denounced the Far North Act as harmful to their livelihood. Some First Nations object to a secret deal between loggers and environmentalists.
But logging is in some ways a sidebar. Proponents say the Far North Act will have little effect on the timber industry because it affects an area farther north where trees are relatively small, grow less densely and are not economical to harvest.
Rather, the main threat to the region is the so-called Ring of Fire, an area holding a wealth of minerals waiting to be mined as warmer weather and depletion of cheaper sources increase their attractiveness. The new law ensures that such development, when it happens, will do the least possible damage to wildlife and carbon stocks, proponents say.
"Conservation on this scale," said Pew's Kallick, "helps assure that growth cannot overdraft ecological balances, that an ample reserve of natural resource capital will remain in the bank for future generations to use."
Christopher Pala is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who has traveled the world covering various topics. He is author of The Oddest Place on Earth: Rediscovering the North Pole. DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news service that covers climate change.
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.