The Lil'wat Nation and BC Parks have signed three conservancy management plans to protect over 10,000 hectares (100 square km.) of Lil'wat traditional territories in perpetuity.
The three, the Qwalímak/Upper Birkenhead Conservancy, K'zuzált/Twin Two Conservancy, and Mkwal'ts Conservancy encompass the watersheds of the Upper Birkenhead River, Twin Two Creek, and Ure Creek respectively, all of which flow into Lillooet Lake near Pemberton. Negotiations began with the B.C. government in 2006.
The signing took place in Mt. Currie on Thursday evening, March 15, and was a public celebration with around 70 in attendance, said Chief Lucinda Phillips.
"It was excellent. We signed the agreement and had some drumming, it was great — lots of good feelings," she said.
"We started the Lil'wat Land Use Plan in 2006, when we signed and completed it. That is the starting point... we did so much community consultation and we'd ask the members where do you hunt, do you pick, do you (gather) cedar bark? Those three areas were significant to the people in wanting to protect and preserve and continue to practice our cultural way."
In a practical sense, the management plan allows the Lil'wat to say how the conservancies will be maintained and used.
"We will be able to divide some of the watersheds into areas of real cultural significance, spiritual significance and put in there that it's not a tourist destination, not a 'go zone'," Phillips said. "We will be able to create the new designations within the provincial system. Just to show its significance, with watersheds going from the highest protection to medium to open to the public. The watersheds are all different but they all represent our interests."
The conservancy is unrelated to any treaty negotiations with the government and no treaties are currently being discussed or planned, Phillips said.
"The treaty question went to my people back in the mid-'80s and it was pretty unanimous that they did not want to entertain a treaty at all," she said.
Of the three new conservancies, the most important in this sense is the Ure Creek area, Mkwal'ts Conservancy, about 40 kilometres from Pemberton. It was the site of standoffs between the Lil'wat and loggers wanting to clear-cut the area in 1991 said Phillips. Sixty-three were arrested at the time. An Independent Power Project proposed for the area was stopped through protests within the last five years.
The history of the area runs deep, with evidence of cedar bark stripping from the 19th century, remains of isktens (traditional homes), pictographs (rock paintings) and is a spiritual place where scwenaxem (medicine people) train. Also of huge importance, said Phillips, were the burial grounds of ancestors, particularly of those killed by a smallpox epidemic in the early 20th century, which devastated the Lil'wat.
Of the remaining two, the Qwalímak/Upper Birkenhead Conservancy is a designated wilderness conservation zone to protect the health of an important salmon river and habitat for mountain goat and grizzly bear. The conservancy management plan provides for non-motorized backcountry recreation in a remote wilderness environment.
The K'zuzalt/Twin Two Conservancy protects an undisturbed watershed with never-logged old-growth forest that protects habitat for grizzly bear, mountain goats and the endangered northern spotted owl. Situated in the vicinity of the historic Gold Rush Trail, low-impact recreational activities, including hiking and backpacking, will be allowed.
Harriet VanWart, Consultation manager of Land and Resources for the Lil'wat Nation, said staff had been working on the conservancy plans with BC Parks for three years. She said there were a possible five other conservancy areas of interest for the Lil'wat but pursuing them was "funding dependent" and not currently underway.
"We selected the first three conservancies as a priority to have management plans for. The Ure Creek region has a lot of emotion attached to that place... it's a really special place that people have fought to protect... it stands apart from the others," she said.
VanWart said the next step is to encourage the Lil'wat community to regard the conservancies as places to use.
"There's been a bit of a history of aboriginal people being not allowed to access parks and not allowed to hunt in parks," she said. "Before aboriginal rights were recognized it wasn't something that happened. The reason they're called conservancies and not just parks is that there is a real emphasis on their being places for recognizing aboriginal rights."
Brandin Schultz of BC Parks was one of two provincial representatives at the signing, which he said mirrored similar signings with the Squamish Nation in February and with the Haida Nation in 2011, when 11 conservancies were signed on Haida Gwaii.