Canada Deal Merges Conservation and Indigenous Rights

March 6, 2020

Canadians love their mountain ski resorts. However, a long-disputed development in southeastern British Columbia will become a conservation zone managed by the indigenous Ktunaxa people instead of a tony winter-sports playground.

The saga of Jumbo Valley has spanned decades. Developers and conservationists alike have invested entire careers to steer its fate. In a historic development, restoring Indigenous rights emerged as a big part of the solution. That has me wondering if similar solutions might be found in the United States, where Indigenous people have deeply held values and rights involving land with natural resource disputes.

CBC News reported recently that the provincial, federal and the Ktunaxa Nation have agreed on a plan to protect the Jumbo Valley and surrounding habitats as an Indigenous Protected Area.

“I believe this is a positive outcome to what was an extremely challenging situation,” Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation council chair, told the CBC. (The Ktunaxa of southeastern BC are closely related to the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho and Montana.)

You can get a sense of this stunningly rugged and beautiful landscape from this video. For 30 years, the Vancouver architect Oberto Oberti has dreamed of a billion-dollar mountain resort in this wilderness valley, with more than 6,000 beds and a complex of ski lifts. The permitting and legal fights around the proposal has been pitched ever since.

Federal Environment Minister Johnathan Wilkinson says turning the site into a protected area is part of a broader reconciliation agenda the Liberal government has with Indigenous people.

The Ktunaxa will receive $21 million to both pay off the development rights and provide management of the area. About $16 million of that will come from the Canadian government, the remainder from US and Canadian private foundations. (Disclosure: That includes Wilburforce Foundation, which is a funder of Resource Media.)

South of British Columbia, in my home state of Montana, tribal communities are deeply involved in conservation issues — including the fate of the National Bison Range to energy development in the Badger-Two Medicine Area. Jumbo Valley reminds us that creative solutions are possible.

Just this week, members of the Blackfeet Tribe and US conservationists watched closely as the fate of the Badger-Two Medicine Area is being considered by in US Federal Court. There, the tribe and conservationists are challenging one last remaining oil and gas development lease in the Badger-Two Medicine Area, a lease that dates back to Interior Secretary James Watt and the Reagan Administration.

The Blackfeet and conservationists seem to have momentum on their sides, as they’ve retired several other of Watt’s leases in the Badger-Two Medicine. But the larger question remains: how to best manage this special landscape, independent of the energy development?

Meanwhile, also in the Montana, the US Senate is considering legislation regarding the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes over that indigenous group’s water rights. One component of that legislation would hand the National Bison Range federal wildlife refuge to the tribes.

All these issues are steeped in a history that many of us have never learned. But to me, that’s what makes them exciting.

John Bergenske, conservation director of the British Columbia-based group Wild Sight, has been involved in the Jumbo Valley resort fight for 30 years. He says it’s been a learning process for him and his fellow conservationists.

“As a conservation community, we’ve had to rethink things and recognize that our traditional ways of doing things don’t necessarily square with the desires of the First Nations,” he said.  

While details are still in the air, Bergenske remains confident that an Indigenous Protected Area will protect both cultural and natural values.

“All the signals are very positive,” he said. “I’m not a starry-eyed fellow. We are all just people. But I have every confidence in the values expressed by the Ktunaxa.” 

— Ben Long