The 10 million-acre territory of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in northwestern British Columbia is wilderness, big, big all so wonderfully big and complete wilderness. The prevailing salmon producer of Southeast Alaska, and perhaps home to the highest density of Grizzly Bears in British Columbia, this largest of intact wilderness river systems on the Pacific Coast of North America, the Taku River, dominates this territory as it flows from the interior boreal forests of British Columbia to the coastal temperate forests of Alaska. Achieving conservation success across this broad landscape required the implementation of a suite of creative land designations, inventive management arrangements, and supporting economic developments. As the Taku’s long serving stewards and its powerful political advocates, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation are and continue to provide the fulcrum for this work.
Beginning in 1998 Round River understood that the best prospect for achieving conservation success in this vast region lied in increasing the wildlife, fish, and land management capabilities and authority of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. Each component of this long standing project was designed to best equip the Taku River Tlingit to assume management authority to effectively review, challenge, and manage proposed development activities in the Taku River watershed and throughout their traditional territory.
On July 19, 2011, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation signed historic agreements with the British Columbian government establishing land protection measures and shared management responsibility for their ancestral lands. The Wóoshtin Wudidaa (Flowing Together) Land Use Plan protects more than seven million acres from commercial logging and designates over two and half million acres as First Nation Conservancy Parks. In addition, the Taku River Tlingit and provincial government agreed to a joint governing process, Wóoshtin Yan Too.aat (Walking Together), to guide future resource-related decisions.
“These agreements represent long overdue respect and recognition for my people, an acknowledgement of who we are as a people and our Tlingit khustiyxh, or way of life on the land, that we are so intricately connected to,” Taku River Tlingit First Nation Spokesperson John Ward.
Since 1998 the Taku River Tlingit, assisted by Round River, completed an ecological assessment of their traditional territory, developed a comprehensive community-based land use vision, negotiated a framework agreement for land use, wildlife management and shared decision making with British Columbia, and jointly lead a multi-year strategic land use planning process for the 7.5 million acre Atlin-Taku planning area.
The conservation achieved through these agreements is very significant. The Atlin-Taku Land Use Plan designates 98% of the 8 million acre planning area as a no commercial logging zone; over 18% as Special Management Areas specifically managed for wildlife and cultural values; and over 25% as fully protected parks. Additionally, the plan protects all major salmon bearing streams through the establishment of Salmon Ecosystem Management Areas. In addition, over 200 Cultural Sites and landscapes have protective measures in place. Together these designations represent a highly contiguous area that captures high quality habitats for salmon, bear, moose, caribou, sheep and goats, and high percentages of important Tlingit cultural sites.
Under the shared decision making arrangement, one of the first of its kind in British Columbia, the governments of the Taku River Tlingit and the British Columbia now coordinate their respective resource management decision-making within an established collaborative process. This arrangement provides meaningful opportunities for the Taku River Tlingit First Nation to be involved in implementation of the Atlin-Taku land use plan, as well as in decision-making for fish and wildlife, parks and protected areas, and the review of applications for proposed development permits and tenures.
Together the land use and shared decision making agreements provide a very strong foundation for conservation-oriented land and natural resources management in the Taku region and represent an achievement of provincial, national and international significance for First Peoples.
The lands the Taku River Tlingit First Nation encompass the watersheds of the Taku and Whiting Rivers, as well as the headwaters of the Yukon River. The richness of this land and its rivers itself provides the very foundation for Tlingit kustiyixh, or ‘way of life’. The Taku River Tlingit take their name, the Takhu Quan, from the Taku River itself, the largest wilderness salmon watershed on the Pacific Coast of North America which flows through boreal, sub-boreal and temperate rainforests, from interior British Columbia mountain ranges to coastal Alaska ranges.
In the early 1990’s, the British Columbia initiated a province-wide initiative to designate protected areas, and to create a series of strategic land use plans to provide certainty for all resource users with regard to resource access, use and conservation. There was limited participation by First Nations in the LRMP processes, and in the other landscape-level planning processes that followed, due to concerns that multi-stakeholder planning was ill-equipped to deal with aboriginal rights and title issues and did not afford First Nations appropriate recognition as sovereign Nations. Nonetheless, by early 2000’s, provincial land use planning had been completed for the vast majority of British Columbia. One of the very few large and ecologically rich regions for which a strategic land use plan had not been completed however, was the Atlin-Taku, the territory of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
During much of this period, Tlingit conservation efforts were focused not on pro-active planning, but in reaction to a proposed 99-mile road to assess a mine in the very heart of the Taku. In response to a decision by the British Columbia government to approve this mine and road, the Taku River Tlingit Nation filed a lawsuit arguing that Tlingit interests had not been appropriately considered in the environmental assessment process. The Taku River Tlingit Nation challenge, heard in the Supreme Court of Canada, led to the landmark Taku/Haida rulings to reshape the nature of First Nation consultation and accommodation in Canada. As part of this ruling, the Court stated that further efforts were necessary to accommodate the interests of the Taku River Tlingit Nation, in part through the creation of a land use strategy.
In 1998, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation partnered with Round River Conservation Studies to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive land planning process, including information gathering, mapping, research, and interviews with Tlingit members. Through its association with Round River the Taku River Tlingit Nation were able to prepare themselves for engaging in a joint planning process by bringing together a range of quality products unlike any other First Nation.
Prompted by the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Taku case, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation entered into exploratory discussions with the Government of British Columbia in 2005 regarding a joint land use and wildlife management planning process. In March 2008, the two governments signed the Framework Agreement for Shared Decision Making Respecting Land Use and Wildlife Management and government-to-government (G2G) negotiations began in earnest.
In July, 2004, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation ratified through a Joint Clan Meeting the creation of the T’akhu Â Tlèn Conservancy, a non-profit entity that secured charitable status from Revenue Canada in 2009. The stated purpose of the Conservancy is to “ensure the traditional territory of the Taku River Tlingit Nation remains a landscape where the needs of the Taku River Tlingit Nation people are satisfied in harmony with the continued long term viability of its native plants, fish, wildlife and natural ecosystems.”
Working in a cooperative partnership with the Taku River Tlingit Lands and Fisheries Departments, the Conservancy was created as a vehicle to develop, fund, and facilitate implementation of programs required to fulfill the intent of the Hà t_átgi hà khustìyxh sìti. As completion of the government-to-government negotiations near, the Conservancy is uniquely positioned to assist with the implementation of Atlin Taku Land Use Plan, and provide for the capacity needed for the next phase of this work.
The Work Ahead
To date, conservation work in the Taku region has focused on three separate but related areas: (i) providing a framework for culturally and ecologically sustainable land management, (ii) establishing new arrangements for ‘shared decision-making’ and (iii) ensuring that the Taku’s remarkable wildlife populations are managed sustainably.
Round River Conservation Studies has supplied the technical aspects of these efforts in close collaboration with the TRT Lands and Resources and Fisheries Departments, under direction from the elected leadership of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. These activities were principally supported through foundation grants to Round River with additional funding supplied by federal and provincial funding to the TRT Departments.
The scope and nature of this work is now changing from being substantially ‘product driven’ to implementing the agreements and building an even greater conservation vision and competence for the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. Activities now include participating in the newly established G2G Forum overseeing land and resource management decision-making, producing park and other conservation area management plans, developing a TRT Wildlife Policy and Wildlife Advisory Group, engaging in a collaborative wildlife management program and implementing ecological and land use research and monitoring regimes.
Similarly, financial mechanisms are changing whereby the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and the T’akhu Â Tlèn Conservancy will directly receive much of the funding to implement the land plan agreements. The BC government will annually support the Nation’s participation in the G2G Forum and in the collaborative wildlife-working group. Additionally, the T’akhu Â Tlèn Conservancy, as a charitable organization will develop its own grant applications and establish a long-term funding endowment, the Tlatsini Conservation Fund. Round River will continue to solicit grants to support its services to the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, as well operate under contractual agreements with the T’akhu Â Tlèn Conservancy.