09/25/2014 05:11 EDT | Updated 11/25/2014 05:59 EST

Scientists urge Quebec to keep northern-development plan's conservation pledge

MONTREAL - More than 500 scientists from Canada and around the world are urging Quebec's premier to stick to his pledge to preserve a huge section of the province's north as part of an ambitious development plan.

Philippe Couillard has been promising to breathe new life into the Liberals' multibillion-dollar northern development project since the party regained power earlier this year.

For years, the Liberals have touted the "Plan Nord" — or "Northern Plan" — as a way to create thousands of jobs through energy development, mining and tourism in Quebec's north, on an area about twice the size of France.

But the proposal, first unveiled in 2011, caught the attention of the international scientific community for its other key goal: to protect half of that boreal wilderness from industrial development.

On Friday, a group of international scientists will send a letter to Couillard, encouraging him to move forward on a sustainable-development and conservation project they believe could "serve as a model for the rest of the world."

The scientists are also calling on Couillard to ensure aboriginal and local communities in the remote region are partners in the project.

"We feel certain that, in taking this action, Quebec will emerge as a world leader in sustainable development, biodiversity conservation and combating climate change, while growing its economy and creating a new ecosystem management model for the 21st century that will set the standard for countries around the world," reads the letter, obtained by The Canadian Press.

Couillard is scheduled to announce the main points of the renewed Plan Nord during a business conference next Tuesday in Montreal.

The project was introduced in 2011 by then-Liberal premier Jean Charest, who had hoped it would become a centrepiece of his political legacy.

At the time, government estimates boasted Plan Nord would generate $80 billion in public and private investment over a quarter-century while creating 20,000 jobs over the same period.

Liberals promoted it as a project that would eventually pump $14 billion into provincial coffers, cash they said would help Quebec shed its status as a have-not province. They said it would make Quebec a contributor to equalization.

The project, however, was met with skepticism from opponents who called it everything from a marketing gimmick to a sellout of Quebec's resources. Some voiced concern that locals would see few of the benefits generated by the development projects.

The Plan Nord was scrapped by the Parti Quebecois shortly after its 2012 election win over Charest's Liberals.

The Liberals returned to power last spring with a majority mandate and the Plan Nord's revival was one of Couillard's campaign pledges.

A co-author of the letter said Thursday the plan's bold conservation promises grabbed the attention of scientists around the globe when it was first announced.

Scientists are still talking about it, added Jeff Wells, a senior scientist with the International Boreal Conservation Campaign

"It's been used as an example in everything from academic papers and reports to popular articles," Wells said in an interview from Maine.

"The world scientific community has kind of been watching and waiting to see what's going to happen."

Wells said there are few examples of nature preservation anywhere in the world that would compare to what Quebec has promised to accomplish.

The Liberals have said the territory covered by Plan Nord is nearly 1.2-million-square kilometres — or 72 per cent of the province.

A boreal conservation officer who met with Couillard on Sunday in New York said the premier reiterated the pledge to protect half of that area.

"For us, it's not just important that the conservation part works, it's important that it works as a model for economic development as well," said Mathew Jacobson of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

"Because if it doesn't work economically, no other nation is going to want to replicate it or use it as a model."

Jacobson acknowledges that scientists do have concerns about the development aspect of the project.

"There's no question, environmentally, that if we left all of the north — 100 per cent of it — intact, that that would be better for the environment," said Jacobson, who met Couillard ahead of Climate Week.

"We can either have intelligent development or not-intelligent development."

In a speech in New York on Tuesday, Couillard boasted of Quebec's investment potential to the Foreign Policy Association.

He spoke at length about his plans to develop northern Quebec, telling his audience the region features rich reserves of minerals such as nickel, cobalt, platinum, zinc, iron ore and gold.

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter