With just weeks before a decision on designating a vast area of Manitoba's boreal forest as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Manitoba government has written the United Nations committee in charge about a possible hydro corridor on the land and environmental organizations say the letter could derail years of work.

The Pimachiowin Aki project nomination has been in the works for several years and would give the forest United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site status. The boreal forest, and its associated bid, spans 33,400 square-kilometres of land on both sides of the Manitoba–Ontario border. 

Pimachiowin Aki world heritage bid submission

The Pimachiowin Aki bid for World Heritage status could be affected by a letter from the Manitoba government. (Pimachiowin Aki)

During the spring 2016 election, the Progressive Conservatives made an election promise to review the decision to build the Bipole III hydro transmission corridor down the west side of the province. The Tories passed that responsibility to the board of directors of Manitoba Hydro.

The provincial government has now written to Parks Canada asking the federal government to pass along a message to the World Heritage committee that decides on the designation.

"I would advise you that the province has recently committed to undertake a review of the Bipole III transmission line project, including different routing options," Jim Hrichishen, deputy minister of Crown services with the province, said in a statement.

Bipole III 'location could change'

"In light of this review, the statement that 'The past threat from the potential development of a big hydro-power corridor has been averted, as the corridor has definitely been re-routed to the western side of Lake Winnipeg,' in the IUCN evaluation report is inaccurate. The Bipole III corridor location could change, and there may be future transmission lines as hydro-electric generation capacity expands."

To date, nothing in the planning of Pimachiowin Aki nor anything in the submission to the World Heritage committee has mentioned the possibility of a hydro transmission corridor on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. A decision on the World Heritage designation is expected in Istanbul, Turkey, in mid-July.

Past agreements restrict development

Land management plans between Manitoba and First Nations in the region currently would not permit the development of a hydro transmission corridor through the region. Those agreements are regulated by Manitoba legislation.

"The nominated area is comprised of the protected areas established in First Nation planning areas, one provincial wilderness park in Manitoba, and one provincial wilderness park and a conservation reserve in Ontario," the nomination bid states. 

"All lands in the nominated area are protected under law from commercial forestry, mining, and hydroelectric development."

Ron Thiessen with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society told CBC News his organization is happy to see the Pallister government is supporting the World Heritage designation in the letter, but is concerned the suggestion of a hydro corridor could affect the bid.

"Our understanding is that such a proposal in the World Heritage site would jeopardize the application and weaken its value," Thiessen said, adding it's hard to imagine Manitoba Hydro would provide a recommendation that doesn't comply with provincial law.

Letter to Parks Canada from Crown Services

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Gord Jones, the project manager for Pimachiowin Aki, could not say how the letter could affect a decision by the World Heritage committee.

In an email, Jones told CBC News the committee can either accept or reject inscription of the World Heritage designation, refer it back to Canada for additional information or defer the nomination.

The project was already deferred once before and the nomination was redeveloped before being submitted again. The bid has cost millions to research and prepare.

NDP conservation critic Rob Altemeyer said there is no way the Progressive Conservatives could reroute the Bipole III transmission line. He said the premier should have known the project was too far along to stop. 

"The behaviour of the premier is very risky, extremely concerning and extremely suspicious as well. It makes no sense," he said.

Altemeyer said he believes the letter was a way for the government to look like it is doing what it can to fulfill its promise to stop the Bipole III project. 

"I don't think anyone believes that Brian Pallister can move the Bipole at this point. I don't think Brian Pallister believes that he can move the Bipole at this point," Altemeyer said. "I think he made an irresponsible, unrealistic promise."

'Really big blow'

"This is a swing away from conservation and towards development," said Eric Reder of the Wilderness Committee.

Reder said the initiative of five First Nations communities to get the designation has been seriously damaged.

"With one letter, to have that sabotaged by the premier, or to have that initiative stopped by the premier, wow, that's a really big blow and its a very large leap in a direction that nobody in the world should be going," Reder said.

Reder suspects there is more going on behind the scenes and it may not have anything to do with hydro lines.

"The chances of running Bipole III or [Bipole] IV through this area are so infinitesimally small you wouldn't even bother discussing it," Reder said.

Reder mused that perhaps mining or other development was driving the effort to influence the World Heritage designation process.

Manitoba Hydro already has spent $1.8 billion of its budget on the Bipole III hydro line project. The 1,384 kilometre right-of-way for the lines and towers has been cleared and much of the land assembly is complete.

Crown services minister not concerned

Crown services Minister Ron Schuler says his government is committed to the World Heritage project, calling the boreal forest unique. He said he isn't concerned the letter his government has sent would affect the process.

Crown Services Minister Ron Schuler

Crown Services Minister Schuler says PC government supports World Heritage bid. (CBC News)

"Not at all, because we have all kinds of examples around the world where there are World Heritage sites and they have hydro lines going through them and they seem to be congruent — there seems to be no issue with that," Schuler told CBC News.

He added that there are currently hydro lines going through the boreal forest and a highway could be built through it some day.

Schuler wouldn't speculate on the fate of the Bipole III line, despite the Crown corporation having already invested close to $2 billion on the project. He says the board of Manitoba Hydro will make that decision.

Schuler said he's not sure how far the Bipole III project has gone or how much has been spent.

"That's the board's job, to look at all that and ask the tough questions," Schuler said.

CBC News is waiting for comment from the NDP who initiated efforts for a World Heritage site and decided to run the Bipole III line on the west side of Lake Winnipeg.

Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Nomination Bid

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Corrections

  • The current plan for the Bipole III transmission line has it running down the west side of Manitoba, not east of Lake Winnipeg, as stated in an earlier version of this story.
    Jun 15, 2016 8:02 AM CT