06/25/2013 08:01 EDT | Updated 08/25/2013 05:12 EDT

N.W.T., federal govt sign devolution deal that gains control of public land

INUVIK, N.W.T. - The Northwest Territories, the federal government and certain aboriginal parties signed a devolution agreement Tuesday which transfers power over public land, water and natural resources to Yellowknife from Ottawa.

Premier Bob McLeod heralded the agreement as one which would allow for the creation of a "strong and prosperous territory."

"We look forward to a future where Northerners make decisions about resource development in our territory and are able to ensure sustainable development will benefit our residents and align with our own priorities and values," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Ottawa called the signing a "historic milestone."

"The final agreement signed today will provide jurisdiction over lands and resources, giving residents control over their own destiny," Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt said Tuesday.

The target date for the transfer of responsibilities is April 2014.

The agreement was signed by Valcourt, McLeod, the Inuvialuit Regional Corp., N.W.T. Metis Nation, Sahtu Secretariat Incorp., Gwich'in tribal council, Tlicho government and Ottawa.

The government of the Northwest Territories is still trying to reach out to the Dehcho First Nations and Akaitcho territory government in the hopes that they may eventually join the agreement as well.

Those two groups have not yet signed on to the deal because of unresolved land claim issues.

Previous devolutions have transferred responsibility for health care, education, social services, highways, forestry and airports.

The latest deal has been criticized by members of the Lutsel K'e Dene, who feel it could threaten plans for a long-desired national park in an area they consider sacred.

The federal government had promised in 2010 that a vast area on the east arm of Great Slave Lake was on its way to becoming Thaidene Nene National Park.

Steve Nitah, head negotiator for the Lutsel K'e, has said the territorial government has not committed to respect the area and there are worries the land will be opened to prospecting and mineral claims.

The area for the proposed park is known to have deposits of uranium, gold and rare earth metals. It's also considered a prime corridor for potential hydro power exports.

The territorial government has expressed its eagerness for both resource and hydro development, but has also said it will follow through on the federal park promise in some form.