Alberta's Beaver Hills, Great Bear Lake in N.W.T., join UNESCO biosphere network

Two Canadian regions have been singled out by a United Nations agency for how well they combine economic and environmental concerns.
Beaver Hills is located east of Edmonton. (Beaver Hills Initiative )

Two Canadian regions have been singled out by a United Nations agency for how well they combine economic and environmental concerns.

In a meeting in Lima, Peru, over the weekend, UNESCO welcomed Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories and the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton into its World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

"This opens another door for us," said Glen Lawrence of the Beaver Hills Initiative, which has been working towards the
designation since 2008.

UNESCO has 669 such reserves in 120 countries worldwide.

The program recognizes regions that have maintained a healthy economy while hanging on to significant environmental values. It's meant to encourage co-operation and innovative thinking.

The Beaver Hills are a prime example, said Lawrence. The area covers about 1,600 square kilometres of boreal forest and wetlands and includes a national park and two petrochemical complexes.

Decisions are made by Ottawa, the Alberta government and five municipalities -- and involve aboriginal people, farmers, landowners and industry.

The city of Edmonton with more than a million people is just a 20-minute drive away.

Yet the Beaver Hills have still managed to hold on to forest, grassland and wetlands, as well as abundant habitat for elk, moose,deer, bison and uncounted millions of migratory and resident birds.

Co-operation and communication has been the key, said Lawrence.

"You can't start isolating people out. We've never pressured anyone. It's completely voluntary."

The shores of Great Bear Lake in Deline, N.W.T. (Pat Kane/Tsá Túé Stewardship Council)

Great Bear Lake in the northern half of the N.W.T. is the world's eighth-largest lake, so large it creates its own weather.

Aside from the abundant fish in its pristine waters, its shores are home to moose, muskox and vast herds of caribou.

Dene in the community of Deline were recognized by UNESCO for unique land management between the territorial government and First Nations.

"This last pristine Arctic lake is under pressure from climate change, but also possible mineral, oil and gas and mining
exploration," says the UNESCO designation. "Local community elders and leaders worked for many years to develop environmental stewardships."

Canada has 16 other biosphere reserves.

To be eligible for the UNESCO designation, biospheres must be nominated by their country, land must already be set aside for conservation and the idea must have local support.

The designation does not carry any legal protection for the land nor does it restrict local decision-makers. Its purpose, according to the Canadian Biosphere Reserves Association, is to share best practices and make it easier to conserve ecosystems without damaging residents' ability to make a living on them.

Lawrence said he's not sure yet what difference being a biosphere reserve will make to his group's ongoing efforts to protect and enhance the Beaver Hills. He is, however, "extremely happy" with the prospect of having to find out.

"I had this stupid grin on my face," recalled Lawrence, who lives in the forest he's trying to protect. "I immediately went out for a walk in the woods."