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First Nation says Alberta oilsands plan will 'annihilate' its lands and future

A First Nation says Alberta's plan to balance the oilsands and the environment ignores the concerns of people who live in a remote northeastern region of forest and muskeg.

The Athabasca Chipewyan say the plan puts some minor restrictions on oilsands development, but does not protect their treaty rights or cultural livelihood.

"Your plan, your land, your future? This is not our plan, it’s the governments plan to annihilate our lands and our future," Chief Allan Adam said Friday in a release.

"There are no commitments to our people and no protection of our lands and rights. We thought we were working towards a partnership with the government, but this plan doesn’t reflect that."

There are about 1,000 members of the First Nation living on four reserves in northeastern Alberta.

The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan announced Wednesday creates new conservation zones, but allows existing conventional oil and natural gas wells to continue operating in those areas.

No oilsands development will be allowed in the zones unless access can be had from outside the boundaries through, for example, horizontal drilling.

That means the government will begin talks with 17 energy companies on cancelling their leases and compensating them. No new tenures will be sold.

The plan increases protected habitat for threatened woodland caribou by prohibiting energy and forestry activity in the Dillon River Conservation Region, which is to be expanded from 27,000 hectares to 192,000 hectares.

The First Nation says the province has set weak environmental standards that won't do enough to protect the caribou and other wildlife.

The government's plan says it will look for opportunities to "engage these communities and invite them to share their traditional ecological knowledge to inform land and natural resource planning in this region."

The Alberta government appeared to be taken aback Friday by the Athabasca Chipewyan response to its plan.

Mark Cooper, a spokesman for Alberta Environment, said government officials met 107 times with 21 different First Nations and nine Metis organizations about the plan over the past three years.

He said the plan had to carefully balance the need for industrial activity, job creation and recreational opportunities along with protecting the environment.

"In achieving that harmony, we need to take into account a number of perspectives and try to balance them the best that we can and that is what we believe we have done with this plan," he said.

"Every effort was made to balance all input with aboriginal people's constitutionally protected rights and treaty rights."

Cooper said the government will continue to consult with First Nations about the plan on issues including the management of oilsands tailings ponds and the need to protect biodiversity.

The plan goes into effect Sept. 1.

Athabasca Chipewyan leaders say by not including First Nations concerns in the plan, the pledge is nothing but lip service.

"We should be equals sitting at the table from start to finish not just called on when they need to give the optics that we've been consulted," Adam said.

The First Nation wants much larger protection zones for culturally significant wildlife, such as caribou and bison herds, and for the zones to be co-managed by the band.

The environmental think-tank the Pembina Institute has called the government's plan a good start, but has also said it is concerned the amount of land being set aside for conservation isn't enough to prevent endangered caribou herds from continuing to decline.

Cooper said Environment Minister Diana McQueen is committed to working with First Nations to make the plan work.

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