nahanni

Celebrate the expansion of the world-famous Nahanni!

In 2009, the Dehcho First Nations and the Government of Canada announced the expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve. CPAWS has a long history working with the Dehcho First Nations and thousands of Canadians to expand this world-renowned park reserve, which is now six times the size of the original one established in 1972. It will permanently protect almost 40,000 sq kms of Boreal wilderness - an area the size of Vancouver Island.

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The South Nahanni Watershed and Nahanni karstlands cover almost 40,000 sq kms of spectacular Boreal wilderness in the Mackenzie Mountains of Canada's Northwest Territories.  The South Nahanni River, running through the heart of this wilderness, stands among the world's greatest natural wonders as it plunges over Virginia Falls, a waterfall twice as high as Niagara, and carves a passage through the earth almost as deep as the Grand Canyon.

The Nahanni lies within the Boreal forest -- a global forest that wraps the northern hemisphere, and within the Yellowstone to Yukon region -- the mountain region stretching from Wyoming to the Yukon. In 2009, the Dehcho First Nations and the federal government announced the six-fold expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve, protecting three quarters of the Nahanni watershed forever. The final step needed to secure the entire watershed is to establish the proposed Naatsi'ihch'oh National Park Reserve  upstream, to protect the Nahanni headwaters.

The place

Conservation Designations

The extraordinary natural and cultural values of the Nahanni region have been recognized through a suite of national and international conservation designations.

National Park Reserve

In the late 1960s, hydroelectric development was proposed for Virginia Falls on the South Nahanni River. Wilderness lovers, led by CPAWS (then known as the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada), cried foul and mounted a campaign to protect the Nahanni as a free-flowing wild northern river. Prime Minister Trudeau's 1970 visit to the river cemented the deal to create Nahanni National Park Reserve. In 1972, land was set aside for a national park, and in 1976, a 4766 sq km corridor along the South Nahanni and Flat Rivers were legally protected as a national park reserve. In 2009, Nahanni National Park Reserve was expanded to permanently protect 30,000 km2 of Boreal wilderness - an area the size of Vancouver Island.

World Heritage Site

In 1978, Nahanni National Park Reserve became the first site in the world to be officially granted World Heritage status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), highlighting the global significance of the Nahanni's natural values.

Canadian Heritage River

In 1987, the section of the South Nahanni River that flows through the national park was designated as a Canadian Heritage River in recognition of its outstanding wilderness character and recreational value.

Wilderness Area

In April 2009, Parks Canada announced Nahanni National Park Reserve as a new wilderness areas within Canada's national parks. A wilderness area is considered the highest level of protection and according to the National Parks Act, "no activities may take place in (designated wilderness) areas that would impair in any way their distinct wilderness character."

The Wildlife

The diverse physical landscape of the Nahanni provides habitat for a rich variety of vegetation and wildlife -- unusual for an area this far north. Over 700 species of vascular plants, 300 species of mosses and lichens, 48 species of mammals and nearly 200 species of birds inhabit the National Park Reserve.

Nahanni National Park Reserve boasts habitat for large mammals including:

  • woodland caribou
  • grizzly bears
  • mountain goats
  • Dall's sheep

The wildlife

The diverse physical landscape of the Nahanni provides habitat for a rich variety of vegetation and wildlife -- unusual for an area this far north. Over 700 species of vascular plants, 300 species of mosses and lichens, 48 species of mammals and nearly 200 species of birds inhabit the National Park Reserve.

Nahanni National Park Reserve boasts habitat for large mammals including:

  • woodland caribou
  • grizzly bears
  • mountain goats
  • Dall's sheep

A homeland for future generations

In April 2008, the Sahtu Dene and Métis signed an agreement with the federal government to create a new national park, to be called Nááts'ihch'oh, to protect the upper 20% of the South Nahanni watershed that lies within their traditional territory. This 7600 sq km area has been temporarily protected until 2013 while work to establish the national park proceeds.

Learn more about Nááts'ihch'oh and how you can help protect this final piece of the South Nahanni Watershed.

The world's finest karst

’The Nahanni North Karst is the most accentuated and important example of subarctic karst anywhere on the planet.“
-Dr. Derek Ford, Professor Emeritus of Geography and Geology, McMaster University, and world expert on karst and land formations

The Nahanni karstlands are one of the features that make the South Nahanni Watershed a globally significant natural area. These fascinating limestone formations are full of caves, sinkholes, alvars, underground rivers and streams, springs and sealed lakes.

Water moves swiftly through the "secret landscape" of karst. Rivers running across the surface suddenly drop below ground, resurfacing great distances away in springs or seeps.

From above, the karstlands appear to be outside the South Nahanni Watershed, but world renowned expert, Dr. Derek Ford, has determined that the Nahanni karstlands feed water directly into the South Nahanni River. Dr. Ford successfully worked for many years to ensure that the entire Nahanni karst area was included in the expanded Nahanni National Park Reserve.

The threat

As industrial development creeps northward, threats to the future of the magnificent Nahanni wilderness are building. Within the watershed of the South Nahanni River are several mining proposals, and an operating mine -- all of which threaten the long term ecological integrity of the sensitive Nahanni ecosystems.

The Prarie Creek Mine

The Prairie Creek mine has never operated. It was originally developed in the 1980s as part of an ill-fated attempt by the Texas-based Hunt brothers to corner the world silver market. The mine was close to operating when, in 1982, the price of silver plummeted, the company went bankrupt, and the project was mothballed.

In 1991, Vancouver-based junior mining company, Canadian Zinc Corporation, took over the site and has been pushing to open a lead, zinc and silver mine at Prairie Creek ever since. Over the past five years, Canadian Zinc has been applying for and receiving a series of advanced exploration permits with the stated intent of opening the mine. There have been significant problems with the environmental assessment and permitting process for the Prairie Creek mine. Exploration and development activities have been considered in isolation from one another, and from the overall proposed mining operation. This fragmented, piecemeal approach to environmental assessment and regulatory review is often called “project splitting” and jeopardizes the effectiveness of the assessment process in protecting the environment.

In June, 2008 Canadian Zinc applied for permits and licenses to bring the proposed Prairie Creek mine into full operation. In August 2008 the project was sent to environmental assessment. CPAWS is participating in this environmental assessment and, as a first step, is pushing for the most comprehensive, thorough environmental assessment possible because of the proposed mine’s location within a globally significant wilderness area.

For more information about this environmental assessment, visit the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board (MVEIRB) website.

Cantung Mine

The Cantung mine, currently owned by North American Tungsten Corporation, has operated on and off within the South Nahanni watershed for almost 45 years. Located 85 km upstream from the current national park boundary, beside the Flat River, the mine site is accessed via the Nahanni Range Road, which runs through the Yukon Territory. The lands around the mine site are important woodland caribou calving areas - critical habitat for a federally listed species at risk.

This is an important area to protect within the expanded national park. Problems have been reported at the mine site, including seeping tailings ponds and fuel spills. According to the company, the ore body at Cantung is almost depleted, and only two to seven years remain in the mine's economic life.

CPAWS has been intervening in all of the regulatory and legal processes related to the Cantung Mine.

Nahanni Flash Floods

Prairie Creek, and the adjacent creek valleys running into the South Nahanni River have been subject to severe flooding episodes in the recent past, not just due to high levels of rainfall, but linked to ground instability and earthquakes as well.

Parks Canada recognizes the risk of flash flooding of tributaries of the South Nahanni River, as well as on the South Nahanni River itself in its visitor information. The Agency identifies Dry Canyon Creek, Lafferty Creek and Prairie Creek specifically as being at risk of flash flooding. They warn visitors to exercise extreme caution hiking in these areas, and not to camp in areas of flash flood potential. They even note that one visitor died in a flash flood episode while hiking along Dry Canyon Creek in 1995.

Parks Canada notes that Clearwater Creek, which runs parallel to Prairie Creek, to the northwest, is an area of particularly high flood potential. Both Parks Canada and Nahanni River Adventures (one of the licensed outfitters on the river), have documented an extreme natural event on Clearwater Creek which, if replicated on Prairie Creek, could have devastating consequences to the mine site and surrounding ecosystems. During the winter of 1996-97, a massive landslide, possibly caused by earthquakes that occurred in the same period, occurred at the confluence of Clearwater and Cathedral Creeks, approximately 17 km upstream from the South Nahanni River. The landslide blocked both creeks, and large lakes formed behind this natural dam. In July 1997 part of the dam collapsed, and the lake that had formed on Clearwater Creek immediately dropped by over 15 metres. A massive volume of water surged downstream into the South Nahanni River, causing the South Nahanni to rise by as much as four metres overnight. While no-one was injured in this event, one group of canoeists on the South Nahanni was forced to abandon their island campsite before it disappeared in the middle of the night, and take to their boats to ride out the flood. Part of the dam, along with the new lake, remains on Clearwater Creek, but its integrity is uncertain.

This dramatic natural flash flood event illustrates the link between earthquake activity, rock slides and floods - resulting in an extreme event of remarkable power. Events of this magnitude cannot be prevented, regardless of the mitigation measures applied, and could result in devastating implications for developments in their path. A similar event on Prairie Creek could severely damage or destroy the minesite and heavily impact on the downstream ecosystem should chemicals, fuel oil and tailings be flushed downstream.

Nahanni Earthquakes

In 1985, two major earthquakes shook the Nahanni region of the Mackenzie Mountains in the NWT, followed by a series of aftershocks. On October 5, 1985 a magnitude 6.6 earthquake shook the region, followed by a magnitude 6.9 quake in December of the same year. Prior to October, 1985, the Nahanni Range was thought to be a relatively quiet earthquake zone. Two more significant events (magnitude 6.2 and 5.5) occurred in 1988.

People in the NWT, Yukon, Alberta, Saskatchewan , BC and Alaska felt the vibrations from the 1985 quakes. While no community was closer than 100 km from the epicentres, the earthquakes caused widespread alarm in Wrigley, Fort Simpson, Nahanni Butte and Fort Liard, the four communities closest to the October quake. In Wrigley, residents reported that the ground rolled and vehicles bounced on the road and trees and power lines whipped back and forth.

Sections of the bank of the Mackenzie River slumped into the river. Scientists found that there had been strong ground movements associated with the quakes, resulting in large landslides and rockfalls in the central area. The biggest slide was a rock avalanche that was triggered by the October quake. This Nahanni rock avalanche was one of the largest ever to be recorded in Canada, and the first known to have been caused by an earthquake. It resulted in a 70 metre vertical scarp on the side of a mountain, with an estimated 5 to 7 million cubic metres of rock crashing 1.6 km down from the crest to the toe of the slide.

After the October, 1985 shock, seismologists moved instruments into the region to collect seismological data. These instruments recorded the ground acceleration of the December 1985 quake - documenting the strongest earthquake induced ground acceleration ever recorded anywhere -- in excess of 2 g!

A recent review of seismic hazard in northwestern Canada concluded that the earthquake hazard in the Mackenzie Mountains is high.

The authors also note that there may be significant secondary effects from earthquakes in the region including landslides, slope failures and sediment liquefaction. This does not bode well for the security of the Prairie Creek mine site, either during operations, or after the mining operations are finished.

Mining Developments

In the past few years, mining activity in the South Nahanni Watershed has accelerated:

  • In April, 2007 a permit was issued to Canadian Zinc Corporation to re-construct the long-opposed winter road to the Prairie Creek mine. This road will cross the limestone formations of the Nahanni karstlands - a sensitive and globally significant area identified for inclusion in the Nahanni park expansion;
  • In April, 2007 Selwyn Resources (formerly Pacifica Resources) applied for a permit to conduct exploratory drilling at Howard's Pass in the Nahanni Headwaters area. This proposal is currently in the environmental assessment process. The company is also in the final permitting stages to re-construct an all season road to the exploration site, which was grandfathered and not subject to environmental assessment;
  • In May, 2007 yet another junior mining company -- War Eagle -- applied for a permit to conduct exploration drilling in the Nahanni Watershed near the Yukon border; and
  • In June, 2007 Canadian Zinc Corporation applied for permission to re-construct the section of road closest to the mine site to all season standards, admitting that the road they had originally said was in good condition, had eroded so badly that it was now needing upgrades and a new permit. They propose to quarry 6,200 cubic metres of rock and place it right in various creek beds to re-build the road. Some of these creeks are known or suspected habitat for bull trout - a species very sensitive to disturbance, particularly sediment in streams.
  • Additionally, despite significant public concern, a proposed drilling program on the Rifle Range Creek ice field near the Cantung mine was not referred to environmental assessment, and is continuing through the permitting process. As of April 2007, this project has been delayed pending further consultation.
  • The combined impact of all these mining exploration proposals within the South Nahanni watershed, if allowed to proceed, will have a significant impact on the future health of the Nahanni ecosystems.

Publications

Naatsichoh South Nahanni River Headwaters (2010)

Factsheet about the proposed National Park that will encompass the headwaters of the South Nahanni River. (2010)

Nahanni : Protected forever (2009)

Booklet celebrating 2009 expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve.

Big animals and small parks (2006)

Implications of wildlife distribution and movements for the expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve.

Author: John L. Weaver

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