In Canada’s Boreal Forest, a New National Park Faces the Wrongs of the Past—and Guards Our Climate Future

Thaidene Nëné, declared this summer, is a milestone for an Indigenous-led conservation movement that can help keep carbon in the ground and protect crucial habitat as the planet warms.

James Marlowe zips along the glassy lake surface of the water in his aluminum fishing boat, and the town of Łutsël K’é quickly falls from sight. We stay close to the shoreline, avoiding hidden reefs, and steer straight for his net. It’s closing in on midnight, but Great Slave Lake—the deepest lake in North America and the 10th largest in the world—is flashing with fish and the tree-covered hills are aglow in the setting summer sun. Marlowe cuts the motor and begins hauling in the 150-foot net hand-over-hand.

Splop! The first fish lands in a large plastic bin. Splop! Splop! Marlowe moves along the net, plucking whitefish from its mesh. With some effort, he untangles a 30-pound trout and heaves the rare find into the bin. “Oh, there are still more fish! It’s not going to stop, man,” he says with a laugh.

Since he was a teen, Marlowe has hunted, trapped, and fished these wilds for caribou, moose, ducks, whitefish, and lake trout. Like his neighbors and ancestors of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, he’s followed traplines that meander from the forest to  tundra and strung nets under the lake ice to harvest food. “We depend on the land and the water for survival,” says Marlowe. “It’s like our grocery store.”

In the early 1990s, however, diamond mining and mineral exploration in Canada’s Northwest Territories began to threaten this tradition of living off the land. The mines produced some jobs and revenue for the community, but they also caused problems. The industry’s high interest in the area concerned the elders, who then directed Marlowe’s generation to find a way to protect the land, water, and animals for their own children—and for the survival of the Dene culture, language, and way of life.

After more than 15 years of discussion, the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation has now signed a landmark agreement with the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories to form a massive new protected area called Thaidene Nëné, or “Land of the Ancestors.” Almost twice as large as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone national parks combined, Thaidene Nëné encompasses more than 6.4 million acres, stretching from the easternmost tip of Great Slave Lake northeast toward the Arctic territory of Nunavut. It spans the boreal forest and its transition to the heath-dominated tundra, making it one of the only protected areas in Canada to straddle the tree line—an important bridge for plants and animals that may migrate as the climate changes.

More than 600 Indigenous communities like Łutsël K’é live within Canada’s boreal region. In the past, Indigenous peoples in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere have been at best left out of—and often harmed by—conservation policy, through which states have claimed land, evicted Indigenous land users, and denied them rights. When Canada created Banff National Park in 1887, for example, superintendent George Stewart wrote about excluding the Nakoda people, even as permanent villages of settlers were established: “Their destruction of the game and depredations among the ornamental trees make their too frequent visits to the Park a matter of great concern.”

Thaidene Nëné, which became official at a signing ceremony in August, is a success story for a different pathway for conservation—one led by Indigenous peoples—that Canada is currently at the forefront of advancing. The mosaic of lands that make up Thaidene Nëné is now protected under Dene law, with federal and territorial parks and a wildlife conservation area within it. Marlowe, who advised his government’s negotiating committee, and his 300-person community not only will continue to live off this land and co-manage the protected area, but also are positioned to benefit from increased tourism to one of the more relatively accessible parks north of the 60th parallel. The achievement assists Canada as well in its scramble to protect 17 percent of its land and inland waterways by the end of 2020, a United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity target agreed to by 196 nations (although not the United States).

Perhaps most noteworthy is that Thaidene Nëné shows how Indigenous and national governments can face past wrongs and reconcile persistent distrust to protect vulnerable ecosystems—an example that couldn’t be more urgent. 

Conservation groups sometimes refer to the boreal forest as the Amazon of the north. It’s one of the last great, mostly intact forests on Earth, a vast ribbon of green unfurling across northern latitudes, from Alaska to Labrador through Europe and Russia. Historically it has not been seen as a conservation priority; compared with tropical and sub-tropical regions, the boreal belt holds far less biodiversity. But the boreal’s size and swaths of undisturbed wilderness, combined with mounting threats to its carbon-rich soils and vegetation, have recently made its protection a top concern.

In North America, the boreal forest covers 1.5 billion acres, about 80 percent of which are contained within Canada’s borders. These lands come alive in spring with the arrival of billions of nesting birds—many are species in decline. Some, including migratory songbirds, travel thousands of miles from as far as the tip of South America. Thaidene Nëné, in particular, is a key nesting area for raptors; Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons create homes in the spindly spruce trees or on lakeside cliffs. More species—such as American Woodcocks and Eastern Whip-poor-wills, according to Audubon’s climate report—will seek shelter in the boreal as warming pushes their ranges northward.

The boreal is just as important for its role in holding climate change at bay. In Canada alone, it stores about 208 billion metric tons of carbon in its soil, wetlands, peatlands, and vegetation—an amount equal to about 100 years’ worth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Counting above and below ground, there’s two or three times as much carbon in each acre of Canadian boreal as is in tropical forests. “For thousands of years, boreal systems have been drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, which has served to cool Earth’s climate,” says Merritt Turetsky, a University of Guelph ecologist and carbon-cycle scientist. “The question is: Can we keep it in the ground and stop it from being re-released into the atmosphere?”

Today, the boreal’s grip on its title as the world’s densest terrestrial carbon storehouse may be slipping. Recent increases in wildfires, insect outbreaks, and human activity risk flipping the ecosystem from carbon sink to source. Between 2001 and 2017 Canada lost boreal forest tree cover over an area slightly smaller than the state of Montana, according to satellite data analyzed by Global Forest Watch. More than 1 million miles of seismic lines—long clearings constructed for petroleum exploration—have sliced through the boreal in Alberta alone. And as the climate gets hotter and wildfires become more frequent, forests and soils will release more carbon. In 2014 wildfires around Great Slave Lake and within the boundaries of Thaidene Nëné released an estimated 580 megatons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to nearly 80 percent of Canada’s annual emissions.

As risks mount, scientists and some governments are recognizing that Indigenous peoples are key to protecting and managing these lands, their biodiversity, and, by extension, the carbon they hold. A United Nations–backed report in May found that species decline occurs more slowly on lands of Indigenous communities. In the tropics, protected areas and forests fare better when managed by Indigenous peoples compared with state-run territories. In Latin America, deforestation rates are two to three times lower in tropical forests where Indigenous and community land rights are recognized and protected. And a recent study co-authored by Carleton University conservation biologist Richard Schuster found that Indigenous-managed areas are just as good, or better, at conserving amphibian, bird, mammal, and reptile biodiversity than conventional protected areas in Canada, Australia, and Brazil. “From a scientific point of view, it shows clearly that keeping Indigenous people out of protected areas is not the best way to prevent species from extinction,” Schuster says.  

In Canada these realizations are merging with a wave of Indigenous-led conservation efforts that go far beyond Thaidene Nëné. For example, after 20 years of negotiations, last October the leaders of the Dehcho First Nations finalized the protection of Edéhzhíe, a peat-rich area that encompasses more than 5,000 square miles to the west of Great Slave Lake. This marked the first time an Indigenous government worked with Canada, through a new conservation fund valued at more than $750 million, to form a protected area. And in July 2018, Anishinaabeg leaders established Pimachiowin Aki, “The Land that Gives Life,” as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg. The 11,000-square-mile tract of boreal land, an area roughly the size of Maryland, has a stored carbon value of up to $13 billion. In the past year, Indigenous governments have transformed more than 26,000 square miles of boreal forest in Canada—an area the size of Tennessee—into protected areas, and many more are proposed and planned.

So far, Indigenous governments have mostly identified places for protection because of their cultural and ecological value. And yet habitat for species ranging from woodland caribou to the Blackpoll Warbler also overlaps with some of the most carbon-rich areas in Canada, says Audubon’s vice president of boreal conservation Jeff Wells, who has been working with Indigenous communities to pinpoint both the climate and biodiversity benefits of protected-area proposals. “It can help them make a case for conservation,” he says. “Millions of birds can benefit when these ecosystems remain undisturbed from human changes that release carbon.”

That means there’s an exceptional opportunity in Canada to advance several goals at once, including reconciliation. Political scientist Eli Enns, “chief problem solver” at the Iisaak Olam Foundation, believes the federal government may have realized that it cannot fight climate change or meet its biodiversity and conservation targets without working with Indigenous communities. “The more optimistic perspective,” he says, “is that it has realized that Indigenous Peoples have a lot to offer to conservation.”

Łutsël K’é is nestled on a point that juts into the east arm of Great Slave Lake. No roads lead to town, but a motorboat, snow machine, or regularly scheduled propeller plane provides transport. Log buildings, tipi frames, vinyl-sided homes, a new school, and a solar array border the town’s gravel roads. Snow machines sit in herds amid fish smokers, boats line the shore, and, during my visit, laughter rises from a cookout where five generations gather for a celebration.

The business arm of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation is housed in a building overlooking a bay. Inside, a corridor leads to offices for departments overseeing lands, wildlife, hunting, and Thaidene Nëné. A hand-drawn poster tacked to a bulletin board reads in colorful block letters: “Our Ancestors Lived off the Land For hundreds of Years. We can’t Survive off the DIAMONDS.”

“Mining is right in our backyard,” says Prairie Desjarlais, program manager for Thaidene Nëné. A wall of her shared office has a patchwork of maps showing Thaidene Nëné, with stickers locating camps, places of cultural value, and nearby mines. She remembers another map, covered in dots representing companies interested in exploring the area for minerals. Now they’re barred in the protected area’s borders: “It’s been a long, long process,” she says.

Thaidene Nëné is the product of patience and persistence. The federal government first approached the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, then known as the Snowdrift Indian Band, about forming a park in the 1960s. Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien arrived with maps of proposed boundaries. At the time, Indigenous peoples weren’t allowed to live in national parks; hunt, fish, or trap; or exercise their traditional way of life. “The response was very cold; it was a flat out no,” says Steven Nitah, a former chief of the Łutsël K’é Dene  First Nation and its lead negotiator for Thaidene Nëné. The maps were ripped down and torn up, and Chrétien was told to leave.

In the years since, resource companies looking for untapped minerals and energy deposits turned to the region. Geologists first unearthed diamonds in the Northwest Territories in 1991, 150 miles north of Łutsël K’é. The discovery sparked the biggest mineral-staking rush in North American history and led to the opening of Ekati, the first diamond mine outside of southern Africa or Russia. With three active mines (a fourth has closed), Canada is now the world’s third-largest diamond producer.

Mining and other natural-resource development has benefited communities, but some, like those in Łutsël K’é, have decided these upsides don’t always outweigh the risks. “The mines give a lot of jobs, but they take a lot of space from the animals that live nearby,” says Kyle Enzoe, who fishes and hunts moose, muskox, ptarmigans, lynx, and other game. 

Many in town, for example, blame the mines for changing the migration of caribou, which move into the area each fall from the tundra, along with grizzlies, wolves, and birds. Scientists have found industrial activities stress the animals more than Indigenous subsistence harvesting, bringing noise, dust, habitat degradation, and truck traffic along the winter ice roads that service the mines. Harvesters in Łutsël K’é say they’ve seen caribou injure their legs on the sharp rocks in roads and that the high embankments block the animals’ passage.

Marlowe remembers how the caribou used to skirt the community in October as the adults moved their calves into the forests. He recalls thousands covering a nearby hill from top to bottom one day. “We were part of the migration,” he says, emphasizing the links between the land, the caribou, and the Dene. “They were like a rug, a giant moving rug.”

These days, harvesters must travel three to five days to find caribou, and herds that once numbered in the millions have declined by more than 70 percent in the past 25 years. Caribou meat consumption in Łutsël K’é dropped by 30 percent between 2000 and 2014, and again by almost 90 percent through 2017. Instead there’s moose or muskox, or a $19 steak from the town’s one grocery store.

During the mining rush, the chief and council approached Parks Canada about a potential park in 2000. By then, the federal government had adopted a more collaborative approach to park development and court cases made it clear that one couldn’t impact treaty rights to hunt, trap, and fish. The community mapped hunting areas, sacred sites, and river systems, and in 2007 the federal government marked lands to be taken off the table for sale, leasing, or development during discussions.

Mining wasn’t the only threat. In 2010 the government considered a proposal to install a transmission line through the proposed park across the Lockhart River, an area containing burial and seasonal harvesting sites, sacred areas, and oral traditions. The Łutsël K’é Dene make summer pilgrimages to Ts’akui Theda, or the “Lady of the Falls,” to seek help, including spiritual, physical, emotional, and healing. “This area is the number-one cultural no-go zone for developments for the Łutsël K’é Dene,” then-chief Antoine Michel wrote in 2010. The project was canceled.

Nitah, who was chief when formal negotiations began around this time, says a major challenge was breaking through more than a century of distrust, both for the Łutsël K’é Dene and several other communities who were skeptical that their treaty rights in the area would be preserved. Another wrinkle: The Government of the Northwest Territories took jurisdiction over the area from the federal government during talks, so the community had to negotiate with another party—one with an interest in mineral development. The business case for a nature-based economy ultimately proved persuasive, Nitah says.

In the end, after years of meetings and consultations, the park agreement signed in August included three other communities—the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, and the Deninu K’ue First Nation—that will serve in advisory roles and also benefit from some economic opportunities. And with the help of Nature United, a global affiliate of The Nature Conservancy, the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation also created an endowment fund worth more than $11 million, with a matching amount to come, to fund the park’s co-management.

In Łutsël K’é, an emotional milestone came earlier in the year. After a week of home visits and public meetings, in February the First Nation members cast their votes. Although not formally required, leaders didn’t want to sign the agreements to establish Thaidene Nëné without the community’s explicit support. Desjarlais spent a 15-hour day checking ballots as they came in. She then drove through the snow and entered the community hall straight-faced, avoiding questions. “OK, we have a park!” she announced, as drummers and dancers celebrated. In the end, 88 percent backed the proposal. “I’m proud that our membership came together,” says Desjarlais. “They all wanted this one thing: to protect the land for future generations.”


t about 9 one night this July, Desjarlais, behind the wheel of a pickup truck, pulled up to the community dock. She’d been swamped all day with work, planning the park’s signing ceremony, coordinating international media, and finding traditional foods—caribou, smoked fish, dried meat—for the celebration.

Afternoon thunderstorms had delayed the departure of the Ni hat’ni Dene Rangers, a program she oversees. These Indigenous Guardians, inspired by a similar program in coastal British Columbia, have been the eyes and ears of Thaidene Nëné since 2008.

Now they were ready to go, and she’d nearly missed them. “Ice and the weather are the biggest challenges with this program,” she says, breathless, swatting at giant mosquitoes. On tonight’s trip, the crew of four will travel about an hour to the Talthelei Narrows, where spiritual gatherings are held annually, to remove a sunken boat.

“When we take youth out there, we teach them how to navigate the lands and the waters,” says Enzoe, who’s been part of the program since its start. “They go out instead of playing video games, and come back feeling better having had the medicine of the land.”

The program sends ranger pairs into Thaidene Nëné for six days at a time to live in basecamps. During shifts they watch and monitor the land and water, maintain cultural sites, conduct surveys of catch, and greet visitors—mostly fishing groups—with whom they share their history, language, and traditions. Some years, they’ve also set up bird-monitoring stations. Acoustic units that record birdsong, installed near the Talthelei Narrows in 2016, captured the morning chorus of Boreal Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

Monitoring programs are rarely done in remote areas like Thaidene Nëné; species ranges are often best guesses, says Shonto Catholique, former director of the Wildlife, Lands and Environment Department for the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation. He works with government scientists and conservation groups to fill in those data gaps and add traditional knowledge to Western scientific studies.

Until this year no one had done an extensive bird survey across the proposed protected area. Over a week in June, Catholique, Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Samuel Haché, and a small team flew by helicopter to dozens of spots, slogging across wetlands to listen for bird calls at sunrise. At some sites they also left units to record birdsong at night. An initial analysis of just some data identified more than 90 bird species, including half a dozen at risk, such as the Olive-sided Flycatcher, Common Nighthawk, and Horned Grebe. “It is an exciting place,” says Haché. “The northern limit of many boreal birds isn’t known, and as we went farther north, some started to disappear and others appeared.”

As the climate changes in this remote area, the Indigenous Guardians will be the only sentinels consistently keeping watch. Turkey Vultures, white-tailed deer, and cougars—species never before seen here—have already been spotted in the area. Magpies have become abundant and American Crows are gaining a foothold. In June, Catholique spotted a Yellow-headed Blackbird outside his office—one of the few times the species had been recorded in the Northwest Territories. With climate change, wildfires are becoming more frequent and severe, and predators and food availability are shifting for the whole bird community, says Haché. The breeding area for most of the birds in Thaidene Nëné is at its northern limit, and their ability to adapt to new conditions will determine which species win and lose. 

Today there are more than 40 Indigenous Guardians programs in Canada. An analysis of two, including Ni hat’ni Dene, found that every dollar invested led to almost $2.50 in benefits that ultimately reduces tax burdens on Canadians, says Nitah. In the 2017 budget, the Canadian government allocated nearly $20 million over four years to an Indigenous Guardians pilot program. Soon, says Desjarlais, the Ni hat’ni Dene program will run all year with a full-time manager.

More broadly, many hope that increasing Indigenous-led conservation in Canada will bring new opportunities by creating more diversified, sustainable local economies. Recently, Indigenous communities in Canada and the United States have also explored new cash flows available for managing land to reduce carbon emissions. For example, the Coastal First Nations in British Columbia now sells carbon offsets to help organizations trim their carbon footprints and uses the funds to plant new forests, replant old ones, and reduce logging. Counterintuitively, the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation isn’t eligible for such revenue: Because the area is now legally shielded from deforestation, it doesn’t qualify. 

In any case, while those in Łutsël K’é expect nearly 70 direct or indirect jobs to arise from Thaidene Nëné, conservation is the motive for their work. “Tourism is interesting,” says Ron Desjarlais, a town councillor who runs an outfitting business, East Arm Pop-Up Camp. “But the main thing is the protection of the land and water.”

Imeet up with Marlowe again on the community docks. Wearing an Edmonton Oilers T-shirt and camouflage trucker cap emblazoned with the words “Native Pride,” he stocks the boat with a Thermos of sweet tea and home-smoked fish. As we motor to Thaidene Nëné, Marlowe points to Hide Camp, where people gather to tan hides under the tutelage of the elders; Egg Island, where gulls nest in June; and the Snowdrift Rapids, where bait fish run seasonally. He leans over the side of the craft and dips a coffee mug into the cool water, drinking in long, deep gulps.

The park isn’t yet official during my visit, and there are no signs, but Marlowe knows the boundary. We cross and slow to a drift. Round-backed hills rise gently from the water’s edge and lift a vast expanse of forest into the distance. Floating on the seemingly endless lake, the land feels unfathomably immense and full of potential.

In anticipation of more visitors, Marlowe had recently launched a guide business, “River’s East Arm Tours,” named after his teenage son, River. He scans the shore with binoculars. “Muskox!” he calls. A bull stands in the shallows, its golden-helmeted head bowed as it tears at grasses. It lets out a snort and rumble, then lumbers into a thicket of willows.

To Marlowe, Thaidene Nëné is more than a place on a map. It’s the water, names,  trails, and stories that have emerged from the waterfalls and river canyons that cut through the land, passed down from one generation to the next. He’s thinking about this even with his new enterprise, he says. “I’ll do this for a little while and then give the business to my son.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2019 issue as “Guardians of the North.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.​