07/19/2011 08:24 EDT | Updated 09/18/2011 05:12 EDT

Atlin Taku Region Pact Inked Between First Nation And BC -- Protects Lands And Opens It For Development


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- VANCOUVER - The British Columbia government and a northwestern First Nation have shed past legal battles by signing an agreement to protect land while opening up other regions for resource development.

The deal extends across more than three million hectares in the Atlin Taku region, and represents a shift from conflict to collaboration between B.C. and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, said Premier Christy Clark.

The First Nation and province were embroiled in litigation at the Supreme Court of Canada from 2000 to 2004. It took three years to negotiate the new agreement.

"Our agreement will protect areas that are culturally and ecologically significant," Clark told reporters Tuesday in Vancouver. "It will also promote our economy, job creation, economic development, and bring certainty for economic development for the future."

Work between developers and members of the First Nation has already begun. It's expected 350 construction jobs and 280 operations jobs could be created by future extraction projects.

"It will provide for the communities in other ways as well," Clark said, noting the area of land including watershed is comparable in size to Vancouver Island. "The Taku River Tlingit First Nation is working with mining developers on activities that will be environmentally sound and will bring economic renewal to the area."

Band spokesman John Ward said the agreement brings his people's vision to life, protecting not only land but a way of life. About 375 members live in the main community of Atlin.

"(It will) help make our dreams of a prosperous and sustainable future a reality," he said in a government news release, adding he was thankful provincial officials used "political will" to make the deal happen.

He called it an "important milestone" in B.C.-First Nations' relations.

"It is a win for the (band), for B.C. and indeed for the country."

The First Nation will receive up to $650,000 over three years to implement the agreement.

Just over one-quarter of the land covered by the deal is now fully protected. About 90 per cent of areas with the highest mineral potential remain available for exploration and potential development.

"The certainty achieved through this land use plan will establish an improved investment climate considerate of Taku River Tlingit cultural values," Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak said in the release.

The Taku Watershed supports the largest commercial salmon run in southeastern Alaska. Commercial forestry will be prohibited in a large section of the plan area to conserve critical caribou habitat.

It was one of the last regions in the province without a land-use plan.