The Lheidli T'enneh celebrated the beginning of an $8.7 million dollar enhancement project planned for Chun T'oh Whudujut/Ancient Forest Park on Friday.
Detailed planning is scheduled to start this fall, with construction starting next year, Lheidli T'enneh Chief Clay Pountney said. Completion of all the upgrades is expected to take four years.
"There has been a lot of support for this project," Pountney said. "We all recognize it a very special place. We will continue investing in this."
The Lheidli T'enneh are contributing $900,000 to the project, and have reached a memorandum of understanding with the provincial government and BC Parks to manage the provincial park site. The federal and provincial governments announced a combined $7.8 million in funding for the project in June, as part of a $65.3 million investment in 24 infrastructure projects in northern B.C.
Delegates including Federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Catherine McKenna, B.C. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman, Mayor Lyn Hall, Regional District of Fraser-Fort George chairman Art Kaehn and other offered their praise for the project.
Plans for the park include a new interpretive centre, a traditional pit house, sweat lodge, widening and upgrading the existing boardwalk, installation of handrails along the trails and the purchase of a Trailrider mobility device to enhance access for people with limited mobility.
While some of the developments will happen at the current park site, some of the activity will be happening in a planned riparian trail area and cultural site near the Fraser River, project manager Karyn Sharp said.
Pountney said the cultural aspect of the project is important, and will provide an opportunity for Lheidli T'enneh members and others to connect and learn about the traditions and culture of their people. The cultural sites at the park will be part of the First Nation's broader initiative to preserve their language, culture and traditions for future generations, he added.
"The culture is not lost," he said. "We're just trying to bring it back."
B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee, a former professional forester, said the ancient forest is a special place.
"It is such an unique area. You don't find these areas in the interior. It's really unique, like the Amazon jungle," he said. "It's not only a significant biozone, it significant to our people. This will tell that story, only only to speak to that science piece, but also about the heritage of the Lheidli T'enneh people."
Local MLA Shirley Bond praised the work by many people in the community who have been passionate advocates for the preservation of the ancient forest.
"It's a place that touches your heart," Bond said. "This is a chance for all of us to learn from the Lheidli T'enneh."
Bond said she was especially glad to hear about the projects that will increase the accessibility of the site.
"For people who can't make that trek, they will have access."
Local MP Todd Doherty said visiting the ancient forest is a chance to "listen to the voices of the people who have walked there before."
Northern B.C. Tourism Association CEO Clint Fraser said this project has been a long time coming.
"I didn't know this day would come," he said. "The Lheidli T'enneh have demonstrated great leadership with this project. This project will only make this region a more desirable destination. Accessible wilderness is one of the biggest assets we have in northern B.C."