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Hope for boreal forest honour

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OTTAWA -- Manitoba is holding out hope a unique swath of boreal forest east of Lake Winnipeg will get the nod as a World Heritage Site today after all.

Parks Canada is presenting the case for the Pimachiowin-Aki today in Cambodia, at a meeting of the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Canada decided to go ahead with the presentation despite the fact the two independent advisory bodies that evaluate UNESCO site bids both recommended the nomination be deferred pending further research.

In particular, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) were looking for more detail on the cultural importance of the 33,400-hectare site to the area's First Nations people.

They are also concerned whether the area is truly unique because there are other similar areas of boreal forest in the world.

Bruce Bremner, an assistant deputy minister in Manitoba Conservation and co-chairman of the Pimachiowin-Aki World Heritage Project, is in Cambodia and said there is still reason to believe the site will get approval as early as today or Saturday.

"Despite the recommendation for a deferral by ICOMOS and IUCN, several World Heritage Site Committee member countries are very supportive of our bid and our working with us here to secure immediate inscription," Bremner wrote Thursday in an update to the provincial government on the happenings in Phnom Phenh.

Bremner also said if the deferral is agreed to, it appears it will only be temporary because the issue is more in how the criteria are applied rather than an actual problem with the site itself.

"ICOMOS and IUCN have told us we have a strong nomination and acknowledged their process for assessing mixed sites needs to evolve, in particular for our proposals covering vast areas such as ours," said Bremner. "In a meeting yesterday they told us a second mission to our site would resolve the issues that have lead them to request a deferral. We would not have to prepare a new nomination."

Pimachiowin-Aki is considered a mixed natural and cultural site. Only 29 of the 962 approved World Heritage Sites are mixed, while 745 of them are cultural and 188 are natural.

World Heritage Sites are chosen based on individual countries nominating them for consideration. ICOMOS and IUCN do independent analyses prior to the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee, but the committee itself makes the final decision.

The committee can say yes or no, or defer their decision awaiting further information.

Manitoba believes the worst-case scenario is Pikachiowin-Aki will be deferred but there is still hope it will get approved.

The NDP government has backed the UNESCO site for years and put more than $14 million toward it. Ontario has also contributed some money toward the project. The site straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border.

Pimachiowin-Aki is one of two Canadian sites being nominated today. The other is the Red Bay National Historic Site in Labrador.

Canada already has 16 UNESCO sites, including the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump in Alberta and Old Town Lunenberg in Nova Scotia.

Pimachiowin-Aki would be the first UNESCO site in Manitoba. It's hoped it will lead to a rise in ecotourism for the area.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2013 A11

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