Self-declared protected area is ‘beginning of conversation’

Written By Fran Yanor

In the latest twist to the land stewardship power-struggle unfolding in the northern interior, Simpcw First Nation unilaterally declared the Raush Valley an Indigenous protected area, a move B.C.’s resource stewardship minister said doesn’t change land use but does signal “the beginning of a conversation.”

“With self-declared [Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas], they’re often the beginning of a conversation,” said Nathan Cullen. “Because in many cases, there’s interests from other First Nations, from resource users, local government and the province itself.”

In a news release dated Mar. 27, Simpcw kukpi7 (chief) George Lampreau declared the Raush Valley an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) “as a long-term commitment to conserve lands and waters for future generations.”

The Raush is a largely undeveloped, intact valley with the biggest, intact tributary to the Fraser River that’s not protected.

“This self-declaration is made based on the inherent rights and jurisdiction that Simpcw has over Simpcwúl’ecw, our unceded territory, as the decision-makers and stewards of the tmicw (land),” Lampreau stated in the release.

Earlier in March, Simpcw declared it would have final say on old growth forest management on its territory.

“Whether we adopt everything [the BC government] want(s) to do or not, is going to be up to us,” 

George Lampreau

“We’re just going to start making decisions and being the decision-maker in our territory, and still work with government, but whether we adopt everything they want to do or not, is going to be up to us,” Lampreau said in an earlier interview.

First Nations want greater say on all aspects of what’s happening on the land, said Cullen, who also serves as the BC NDP MLA for the northern riding of Stikine. “This is the general direction we’ve been taking on a lot of things.”

First steps

Since declaring the IPCA last week, the province has reached out to Simpcw, the minister said, explaining the first step after a nation self-declares protected land or indicates some other “strong signal of intent” is to sit down with the nation to discuss the specific area or land use planning across a larger territory.

The two governments then try to sort out any implications with other nations, including defining claims, “as you would in any land use process,” Cullen said. Four First Nations reportedly have claimed interest in the Raush Valley.

Then the province and nation work to set up “a parallel process” to inform and allow input from stakeholders, local government and other interests. “So it’s not a shutting the door on others who live there or have work interests in the area,” he said.

Simpcw intend to sign an agreement with Lheidli T’enneh, whose territorial claim overlaps with their own, to decide boundaries in the Robson Valley, Lampreau said in an interview last month. His nation has also been working with Conservation North (and Fraser Headwaters Alliance) on protection of the Raush, and will continue building relationships with local landowners, he said.

Some of the Raush Valley is private land, and both Prince George’s Carrier Lumber and Dunster Community Forest have tenures within the proposed IPCA boundaries.

While government has a responsibility to include people in the process, it’s with the understanding there is a legal relationship between the province and the First Nations, which is an unique rights and title position that must be honoured, Cullen said. 

Preferred approach

Cullen’s ministry is largely tasked with modernizing land, water and resource stewardship decision-making processes to incorporate the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, recent rights and title court decisions like the Blueberry River judgement, along with new provincial policies like the upcoming watershed security strategy and old growth review recommendations. 

The “preferred approach” for Indigenous-led stewardship initiatives such as IPCAs is “government-to-government collaborative processes” like modernized land use planning which allow for a transparent process ensuring interested parties understand any changes being considered, according to an emailed response from Cullen’s ministry staff last week. 

“The ideal place we come to [for] these solutions … is collaboratively,” said Cullen.

Collaboration isn’t always smooth or possible though, as acknowledged in a September 2022 briefing note for Cullen’s predecessor, in which staff anticipated increased interest in Indigenous-led conservation, including IPCAs, from nations “who wish to exert and express more formally rights and title” and warned that in some cases, direct action, evictions or blockades might occur.

Ironically, Simpcw are themselves dealing with Indigenous protesters who have aggressively occupied their territory uninvited (and blocked a public road) for more than four years, despite the former chief asking them to leave.

Residents generally supportive but questions remain

Despite widespread support for protecting the Raush, Northern Beat has heard from residents, stakeholders and forestry interests concerned about the as-yet-unknown process of forming an IPCA. No one wished to speak on the record for fear of antagonizing the situation or having their questions misinterpreted as opposition.

Most queries related to uncertainty around the process, criteria, standards and input involved in creating an IPCA, as well as how protection measures would be maintained in the Raush into the future, especially, following political change at the First Nation or provincial level.

Cullen acknowledged the concept of IPCAs is new and unsupported by legislation but said there are tools to draw from for conservation values and outcomes. 

“All of this does speak back to the need for what we now call modernized land use planning,” he said.

What exactly that means about the criteria, process and reliability of the IPCA is unclear.

Resource development seems the biggest worry, given IPCAs “mean different things to different nations,” and “sustainable resource use and economic activities” are permitted, according to an emailed response from the land stewardship ministry.

While a small portion of the Raush has been logged, Lampreau told Northern Beat his nation has no plans to allow logging in the valley. And the Ministry of Forests reported there are no outstanding logging permit applications for the Raush.

A different way of land use planning

Cullen said his mandate letter includes a conservation objective the province has committed to, but will require land stewardship be done in a new way. 

It starts and ends with the rights and title holders, he said, “and must include other interests and have aspects of what biodiversity we’re protecting and what the broader interest is for the province and planet, frankly, not to be too grand about it.”

The Province and the federal government have encouraged First Nations to set up IPCAs to help the country and province meet their obligations under the United Nations biodiversity directive to preserve 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030.  

Simpcw First Nation chief George Lampreau (centre) on a 2021 helicopter tour of the Raush Valley with a local landowner and members of Fraser Headwaters Alliance and Conservation North. [Photo Lenard Sanders, Conservation North]

The old ways of a federal cabinet minister declaring a park from his office in Ottawa, with little consideration of local interests or rights and title owners, won’t fly anymore, observed Cullen. 

Modern land use planning is much more “site-specific conservation,” “nation-specific” and respectful of local community and culture, but there is no cookie-cutter for an IPCA, Cullen said. His ministry is charged with leading engagement on IPCAs, but staff would not say if the terms of an IPCA would be legally binding, although they did write via email that the government-to-government process “will explore all opportunities to realize the shared stewardship vision for the land…” including regulatory, legislative and policy tools.

The best way to ensure the “durability” of IPCA conservation protections is to build strong Indigenous buy-in, broader community buy-in, and proper financing, the minister said.

A big part of locking in support relies on adequate funding of the land use planning process itself and the province is over-subscribed for the resources allocated so far, Cullen said, adding his ministry will continue seeking additional support, particularly to help nations build capacity. 

“Sometimes you’re talking about very small nations – three-and-a-half people working in the office [and] everybody’s at the door: the province, the feds, industry, local government, conservation groups,” he said. “We have to be respectful of what that challenge is.”

Cullen said his government is “leaning in,” and has begun talking to Simpcw and other nations with a declared interest. “Then, when we’re ready, and as soon as possible, get out to the broader community and engage them … so that we have a pathway and a place where people can have their voices heard.”

All of which represents an enduring decision-making process to Cullen, “as opposed to something that’s quick, but doesn’t last.”

Modern land use planning is slow, he said.

“It takes investment and time.”