Manitoba's east-side boreal forest gets 2 big endorsements for UNESCO World Heritage Site status

After 14 years, Manitoba’s east side boreal forest is finally poised to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Reports recommend accepting proposal at June conference in Bahrain

Pimachiowin Aki means 'the land that gives life,' and includes 29,040 square kilometres of boreal forest spanning the Manitoba–Ontario boundary. (pimachiowinaki.org/)

After 14 years of trying, Manitoba's east-side boreal forest is finally poised to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Two reports headed to the UN next month both recommend approving Pimachiowin Aki as a mixed cultural and natural heritage site.

Both the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN — advisory bodies to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee — are endorsing adding the forest to the list.

"We're really excited to have received these two very strong endorsement from these international advisory committees and we're waiting with bated breath for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to look favourably upon this site when they're meeting next month in Bahrain," said Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires. 

All of the partners involved here … are excited, gratified, that we're back at this stage and really feel that we're poised to be successful this time around.- Gord Jones, Pimachiowin Aki Corporation

The nomination process has essentially reached the same point it was at back in 2016, when one of the First Nations partners in Ontario backed out of the project.

That resulted in the nomination being referred back to Canada. A new bid was submitted in January 2017.

"I think all of the partners involved here, the First Nations in Manitoba and Ontario, are excited, gratified, that we're back at this stage and really feel that we're poised to be successful this time around," said Gord Jones, project manager for the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation, which has been the driving force behind the process and will be responsible for managing the site if the nomination is approved.

Pimachiowin Aki means "the land that gives life," and includes 29,040 square kilometres of boreal forest spanning the Manitoba–Ontario boundary. 

Four First Nations — Bloodvein, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi and Poplar River — are involved in the project. 

"We very much appreciate the support we have received from the governments of Manitoba, Ontario and Canada," said William Young of the Bloodvein First Nation and Pimachiowin Aki spokesperson. "We respect the process but remain optimistic that the recommendations will be accepted."

If the bid is successful, it will help preserve the culture and provide economic opportunities for First Nations in the region, Jones said. 

"They feel that the steps they've taken to care for their lands in the future is actually a gift they're providing to others, to help protect and maintain clean waters, to protect wildlife and habitat for wildlife."

The Pimachiowin Aki bid for world heritage status has faced setbacks and rejections for 14 years. (Pimachiowin Aki)

In 2004, the province and stakeholders began work on the bid, which has suffered past rejections and a major setback in 2016 when an Ontario First Nation pulled out. 

The Province of Manitoba spent more than $14.5 million on the bid under the previous NDP government. 

After the Tories were elected in 2016, they warned UNESCO that rerouting the Bipole III transmission line through the area was not out of the question, though that line is now nearing completion in western Manitoba.

The NDP government opted for the longer route on the west side of Lake Winnipeg to avoid running Bipole III through the proposed UNESCO site.

The IUCN report made several requests of the government, including that it encourage neighbouring First Nations to partner with the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation, that it consider further extensions of the protected area over time, and to ensure that the construction of an all-weather road does not have an adverse impact on the area. 

The site would be the first-ever "mixed" UNESCO World Heritage Site — meaning it's recognized for both natural and cultural value. 

Criteria including protection status, integrity and natural value are all met, according to the reports

The decision will be made a the World Heritage Committee 42nd session in Bahrain from June 24-July 4. 

With files from Cameron MacLean

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