Bear Lake UNESCO Site

Peter Kujawinski wrote a nice piece in the NYT aboutTsá Tué, a new UNESCO preserve at Bear Lake in Canada. This vast area is inhabited by the Sahtuto’ine people, who have lived there for generations.

Snow- and ice-covered bushes along the shore of Great Bear Lake. It’s the eighth largest lake in the world. Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times
Snow- and ice-covered bushes along the shore of Great Bear Lake. It’s the eighth largest lake in the world. Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Unlike many other nature preserves, Tsá Tué has been placed under the formal authority of the local people, to sustain and protect for all humanity.

This approach aligns the traditional cultural connections of the local people with the lake and it’s environs, and places our faith in people who feel a deep, deep link to the area. (And for once, the priorities of the local people are treated with respect and not to be overrun by outsider powers.)

Tsá Tué caught my attention because I had dreamed of such approach to combat poaching and destruction of forests. I imagined forming a protective force run by inigenous people, including defensive bands of rangers. Who better to selflessly care for a forest or park, than peoples whose identity and culture are one with the natural setting?

Kujawinski was lucky enough to visit Deline and the lake, and reports on the beauty he found there. He also spoke to his hosts about their views and hopes. The residents and now stewards of the area speak of their language and history, and an identity inextricably tied to the lake.

He notes that many of the people are inspired by the prophecy o Sahtuto’ine elder Eht’se Ayah, who taught that the lake will be one of the last clean areas on Earth, and people would come North for refuge. Other stories recount the beating heart of the lake, and suggest that Bear Lake is connected to all the other lakes and waters of the world.

Whether you take these stories literally or metaphorically, they illustrate a commitment to defend the natural environment, a commitment that is not motivated solely by self-interest.

Not everything is honky dory, of course. Bear Lake is way up North, but hardly far enough to miss out on the twentieth century. For several decades, there was a large Uranium mine on the lake, which supplied Uranium for the earliest nuclear weapons. Many local people worked in the mine, and many died from the work. The mine is closed now, but who knows how much residual damage is there to plague the future?

I also have to think that the idea that Bear Lake, Tsá Tué, will remain pristine, and be a refuge from environmental disaster is too optimistic. Even today, the seasons are changing, which will surely stress the wildlife and waters. I’m also confident that the snow, lake, and living things already contain measurable traces of chemicals from the smoke down south. The preserve may be relatively empty, but I’m sorry to say that it is still part of the far from pristine world.

I don’t think I’ll be visiting Bear Lake soon, it’s too far away. But I’m glad to know that it is in good hands.


  1. Peter Kujawinski, Guardians of a Vast Lake, and a Refuge for Humanity, in New York times. 2017: New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/travel/great-bear-lake-arctic-unesco-biosphere-canada.html
  2. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Tsá Tué. 2016, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/ecological-sciences/biosphere-reserves/europe-north-america/canada/tsa-tue/.

 

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