Called Deh Cho, or Big River, by the Dene people, the Mackenzie River is one of the world’s great river systems. Flowing through 1100 miles of globally important forests and tundra teeming with wildlife, it is Canada’s longest river, and the 5th longest in the world. Its watershed, bigger than the state of Alaska, covers one-fifth of the country.
The Mackenzie River Watershed, one of the world's most spectacular wilderness areas, is largely without roads, settlements, or development. Located in Canada's Northwest Territories (NWT), the area is a pristine section of North America’s boreal forest, a vast stretch of forests, lakes and wetlands that is Canada’s – and the world’s – largest land ecosystem. The Mackenzie River Watershed is home to woodland and barren ground caribou, wolves, lynx, grizzly bears, moose, and huge populations of migratory ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds, raptors and loons.
The region is also a land of rich culture and heritage. Dene, Inuvialuit, and Metis people have called it home for millennia, and continue to draw economic, cultural, and spiritual sustenance from the land and its resources.
What about the birds? The Mackenzie River Valley is one of North America’s great migratory bird flyways. Five globally significant Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and one continentally crucial IBA stretch along the river. These IBAs are vital staging and nesting areas for tens of thousands of waterfowl, such as tundra swans; greater white-fronted, lesser snow and Canada geese; canvasback and mallard ducks; and thousands of songbirds. Roughly 100 species of migratory birds are present in the Mackenzie River Delta IBA alone, including the last known breeding habitat of the highly endangered Eskimo curlew.
The Threat: Proposed Pipeline
In 2010, Canada ranked 4th in natural gas production and 6th in overall oil production globally. It is the single largest foreign supplier of energy to the United States. A complex web of global economic and political forces is placing the NWT, with its oil and natural gas resources, at the center of the world's energy stage.
The pristine nature of the Mackenzie River Watershed faces a grave threat from the proposed Mackenzie Gas Pipeline. A consortium of major oil and gas companies has proposed to connect the natural gas fields of the Mackenzie Delta on Canada’s Arctic coast to markets in southern Canada and the United States via a pipeline through the Mackenzie River valley corridor.
This 700-mile, multi-billion dollar project would transform the valley. The Mackenzie Gas Pipeline would fragment wildlife habitat, destroy wetlands, and clear-cut forest. Heavy machinery would be deployed to construct the infrastructure, and the new underground pipelines would tunnel under or cross 580 rivers and streams.
As huge as it is, the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline is just a first phase in the industrialization of the Mackenzie Valley. The pipeline would open up this currently pristine area, triggering a rush of oil, gas, mining, and other development throughout the valley. The valley, once open, would be subject to additional pipelines as well as feeder lines, mining projects, and a network of roads which would fragment the area, accelerating further damage to wildlife and ecosystems.
The Tar Sands Connection
The Mackenzie Gas Pipeline also has a strong link to the tar sands in the province of Alberta. Alberta's tar sands include proven oil reserves second in size only to those of Saudi Arabia. In 2010, Canada ranked 6th in the world in terms of crude oil production, and that number is likely to continue rising due to tar sands production. The Mackenzie Gas Pipeline would fuel the tar sands project. Learn more about the tar sands >
The Solution: NWT Protected Areas Strategy
The NWT Protected Areas Strategy (PAS) could protect as many as 100 million acres in the Mackenzie Valley – making it one of the largest conservation projects in North America, on par with the Alaska Lands Act.
The PAS is a broad partnership created in 1999 to identify and establish a network of permanently protected areas in the Mackenzie River Watershed. PAS partners include northern communities, government, regional Aboriginal organizations, environmental non-governmental organizations and industry. The partners use existing legislation to provide permanent, legal protection for special and natural areas and core representative areas within each eco-region of the NWT.
The work of the PAS is driven by decisions at the community level. There are eight steps to designating a protected area under the strategy. Throughout the process, Aboriginal and treaty rights are respected. Traditional uses such as hunting, trapping and fishing are permitted in the protected areas.
Areas which have been identified as “areas of interest” under the PAS for conservation include:
- Pehdzeh Ki Ndeh (Wrigley)
- Deninu K’ue (Hook Lake/Slave River Delta)
- KaAGee Tu (Kakisa)
- Tulita Conservation Initiative areas (Areas 2a, 2b, 3, Bear Rock, Kelly Lake, Mahoney Lake, Red Dog Mountain, Willow Lake (Brackett Lake))
- Ts’ude’hliline-Tuyetah – Ramparts River and Wetlands (Ft. Good Hope)
- Begadeh – Nahanni Headwaters (Tulita)
- Sambaa K’e (Trout Lake)
In 2003, all parties, including the oil industry, agreed to a plan to complete the PAS. Despite agreement by all sectors that the PAS be completed in advance of development, recent progress has been slow. It is unclear whether energy companies now believe that the PAS should be completed before any pipeline proceeds. The pipeline would cross about 44% of the Dehcho First Nation's land. The Dehcho are withholding their consent on the pipeline until, among other conditions, the plan to set aside more than one-half of Dehcho lands for traditional uses and conservation is implemented.
“Conservation First”: A Time to Choose
The likely scale and pace of industrial development in the NWT in the decade following construction of the Mackenzie Gas Project underscores the importance of building in a “conservation first” approach to any approval of the pipeline. Setting aside large areas of land for conservation and traditional purposes before any pipeline is built can protect ecological and cultural values and help the peoples and communities of the North share in the economic benefits of development over the long run.
Until the Canadian government implements the NWT Protected Areas Strategy and settles Dehcho First Nation land claims, the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline should not be built.
Herb Norwegian, Grand Chief, Dehcho First Nations