The NWT Chamber of Commerce has written a letter to the territory’s environment minister asking him to shelf the proposed Thaidene Nene park around the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake.

Thaidene Nene — originally proposed in the 1970s — covers almost 30,000 square kilometres of pristine waterways, forests and Canadian Shield near the community of Lutselk’e.

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Last year, public consultations were held throughout the territory to decide boundaries and where different governments should have authority in the park.

In the end, 14,000 square kilometres were set aside to be managed as a national park. Another 12,000 square kilometres were designated as territorial land, though it would have similar protections as the national portion.

Richard Morland, president of the NWT Chamber of Commerce.

Richard Morland, president of the NWT Chamber of Commerce.

Local Aboriginal governments were also heavily consulted and guaranteed a role in the planning, management and operation of the proposed park.

But at a time when the territory’s economy is slumping, the NWT Chamber of Commerce says it makes little sense to discourage industrial activity on such a massive piece of land.

“It appears inconceivable to the business community that the GNWT would be a willing partner in such a reckless annexation of potentially productive land,” wrote Richard Morland, president of the NWT Chamber of Commerce.

His letter was sent to Robert C. McLeod, the territory’s environment minister and deputy premier, on Monday.

Morland added: “The business community is always heartened to hear the GNWT confirming that the Northwest Territories is open for business.

“You will therefore understand our alarm when we contemplate the annexation of a land area the size of Belgium, contained within the proposed Thaidene Nene [park].”

‘The NWT is not open for business’

As part of last year’s consultations, the GNWT said it worked hard to balance the potential for mineral exploitation in the area with its natural beauty and cultural significance.

While Morland acknowledges that efforts have been made to manage park boundaries to exclude mineral rich areas, he says it hasn’t gone far enough.

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“The limited investigation work that has been done to date is insufficient to contribute meaningfully to any land-use planning that properly balances economic interests with conservation objectives,” he said.

“It appears to be nothing more than an artificial consultation or box-ticking exercise.”

Once you factor in land claims in the surrounding area, Morland says much of the territory’s southeast region is effectively blocked off from industrial activity even though there could be gold or diamonds in the area.

He says the territory needs the resource industry to survive, but the GNWT is basically saying it’s not open for business.

“The message that this annexation is sending is that the NWT is not open for business,” he said. “Our request is that the Thaidene Nene national park and associated territorial park be shelved,” Morland wrote.

Even though the resource sector is what keeps the Northwest Territories afloat, Morland says it also has its skeptics both in government and in communities.

“Resource development is required to produce the billions in revenue that will result in millions of dollars in taxes and royalties being collected to support the processes and programs of this government and territory,” he said.

“The people who seek to eliminate the resource industry from the Northern conversation are in denial about this obvious fact and have not proposed any credible alternative.”

While the chamber understands the government’s need to take cultural considerations and people’s connection to the land into account, it says there are other ways to go about that.

“We support the principles associated with these considerations,” Morland wrote. “However, the sense of integrity that those same peoples are seeking is not achieved by cultural connection alone.

“We have all the tools we need to develop the industrial base of the Northern economy while honouring our heritage.”

To the local Dene, Thaidene Nene presents an opportunity to conserve a sacred landscape and create a sustainable local economy.

Local leaders say permanent protection of the area will allow them to preserve their culture while providing security for generations to come.

Last summer, an official with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society told Moose FM she believes Thaidene Nene could enter existence as a fully-fledged national and territorial park in the next two to three years.