NORMAN WELLS, N.W.T. - A vast tract of mountainous Northwest Territories terrain was christened Wednesday as a new national park that Stephen Harper billed as striking a balance between protecting the environment and growing Canada's economy.
The original Nááts’ihch’oh reserve proposal was to protect 7,600 square kilometres from commercial activity, but the final decision instead sets aside just over 4,300 square kilometres of lakes and rainbow-hued mountains about 90 minutes south of Norman Wells.
The remaining territory has potential for mineral development, which is why it was left out of the final plan, officials said.
"One of our objectives is to make sure we protect our environment and also allow for economic opportunity here," said Harper, who unveiled plans for the park as part of his annual late-summer sojourn through Canada's North.
The mountain from which the park takes its name is of spiritual significance to the Sahtu Dene, who were part of the negotiations for the new reserve.
Frank Andrew, grand chief of the Sahtu, acknowledged his band would have liked to see a bigger park. And though he's worried about natural resources development, there could be a trade off, he said.
"There are going to be different jobs and that for the people, we figure we'll might be able to balance that," Andrew said.
"Land protection is so important for our people."
Harper and his wife Laureen took a 90-minute float plane ride to the new park area Tuesday to see it for themselves.
Once they got there, they strolled through willows to reach a tiny outcropping overlooking Moose Ponds. When everyone fell still, not a single sound could be heard over the pond, which is a popular starting point for canoe trips and hunting expeditions.
"It's a spectacular place for a new national park," Harper said.
Harper suggested to a Parks Canada employee that he's aware locals are sometimes leery of parks because of their potential impact on economic opportunities.
Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod said the park shows there can be a balance between the two. But what's more important, he said, is how all levels of government worked together with aboriginal groups to unlock Canada's potential.
Those relationships, he said, need to be broader.
"Our northern resources will benefit the entire country once unlocked," McLeod said. "We need to work as a confederation on energy matters. We cannot strand the Northwest Territories for another 40 years."
The future fortunes of Norman Wells, historically an oil and gas hub, have been called into doubt by the precarious state of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project — a 1,196-kilometre natural gas line from the Beaufort Sea to North American markets. Norman Wells, about 680 kilometres north of Yellowknife, is home to some of the infrastructure.
Residents had hoped the government would help pay for an all-season road out of the community to help build more of infrastructure required for the oil and gas industry. While the federal government has given some money to industry in order to compensate for underdevelopment, Harper suggested no more was coming.
"Fundamentally, the proponents themselves have to make a decision on whether these projects are commercially viable," he said.
While the Conservatives consider themselves champions of Canada's national parks, the agency in charge of running them was hit hard in the recent federal budget.
Parks Canada has since announced the closure of services at many parks, including in the North, and locals are concerned about the implications for tourism. But the new park isn't going to suffer, said Alan Latourelle, Parks Canada's chief executive officer.
"From Parks Canada's perspective, we've celebrated a century of serving Canadians," Latourelle said.
"We always have to think about a century from now, and the steps we are taking today will ensure that future generations of Canadians get the same opportunities we have today to protect these great places and experience them."