Labrador sweeps across nearly 300,000 square kilometres, including one of the world's largest intact boreal forests and some of Canada's most pristine wilderness.
Its massive tracts of unspoiled landscape are home to the grey wolf, migrating caribou herds and a vast array of fish, plant, bird and rare species.
As mining developments expand and commercial interests eye the Big Land, researchers are for the first time drafting a comprehensive eco map or blueprint for Labrador that could guide future money-making and conservation efforts.
The three-year project wrapping up later this year is led by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The private non-profit group has partnered with individuals, corporations, governments and other non-profit organizations to conserve more than one million hectares of "ecologically significant" land since 1962, according to its website.
Labrador is more than significant, says NCC conservation planner Lindsay Notzl. She has made 10 trips exploring its woodlands and tundra, wetlands and rivers for the unique mapping project.
'Very special place'
"Labrador is a very special place," she said in an interview. "Coming from Toronto, where our conservation opportunities are so slim, it takes your breath away to be able to fly in a helicopter over vast tracts of forest where there's absolutely no human disturbance.
The project is using cutting-edge Geographic Information Systems, computer-based tools that store data on everything from water fowl to sandy beaches. Notzl hopes that technology will help create a final product by early next year that's an interactive document on Labrador ecology.
"If it's ecologically relevant, we've mapped it," she said. "One of the most useful products I think will be the human footprint index where people can actually start to look at what the picture looks like now and then potentially use that information to forecast into the future.
"What we're producing is not a silver bullet map — you know, these are the areas of high conservation value that are no-go zones. We're looking at what are the different options for conservation and development, given the variety of goals."
Notzl described the survey as a collaborative bid to provide information that was previously inaccessible or hard to find and offer it as a guide for future decisions.
The $500,000 project has been funded by the provincial government, NCC, private foundations and Mountain Equipment Co-op, the only source of "industry" funding, Notzl said.
It pulls together information from smaller environmental studies and historic data on forest conditions before the Upper Churchill hydro development transformed the mighty Churchill River in the late 1960s.
Plans for another hydro dam at Muskrat Falls on the same river could be approved later this year. In Labrador West, iron ore mining has expanded in recent years driven by global demand for steel.
"The Labrador landscape has changed significantly in the last five years and, in the next five to 10 years, we can expect to see quite significant changes," Notzl said.
"We want to have a living document and then you would have all this map information that would be updated over time."
A vital part of the process has been gathering input from Labrador's aboriginal peoples — the Innu, the northern Inuit of Nunatsiavut and the southern Inuit-Metis of NunatuKavut, Notzl said.
Todd Russell, president of NunatuKavut, said his group represents about 6,000 people whose perspective reflects generations of living and depending on the land.
Consultation is essential "so that there's an accurate picture being drawn that gets presented not only to the public but to developers and potential investors," he said.
Russell's group has vowed to fight Muskrat Falls at every turn, saying its transmission lines would disrupt traditional fishing and trapping grounds without properly benefiting the aboriginal people affected.
"We don't even get the hydro," he said in an interview.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale has said her government would not be pushed into a benefits agreement with the NunatuKavut, saying the group doesn't have status and should be discussing their claim with Ottawa.