The Lheidli T'enneh First Nation has secured $7.8 million from the federal and provincial governments for an ambitious list of improvements and additions to the Ancient Forest-Chun T'oh Whutujut Provincial Park.
Work over the next three years will include construction of an interpretive centre, along with a sweat lodge, pit house, gazebo, and improvements to the boardwalk as well as new hiking trails.
The funding, which was announced Friday, is comprised of $6.5 million from the federal government and $1.3 million from the province. The Lheidli T'enneh will contribute $870,254 pushing the total to $8.7 million.
"This is a pretty big deal, we've been looking forward to this for a very long time," Lheidli T'enneh Dayi Clay Pountney said in reference to nearly two years it took to get the support.
Laying the groundwork began in September 2018 when the Lheidli T'enneh and Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy signed a memorandum of understanding to work on the planning and management of the park.
Perhaps the most-notable addition will be an interpretive centre at the park's main parking lot alongside Highway 16, 115 kilometres east of Prince George. The sweat lodge, pit house, gazebo will be centred at a cultural site on the west bank of the Fraser River.
It will be both a chance to showcase Lheidli T'enneh history and culture and draw even more tourists to the park, which drew nearly 18,000 visitors in 2018. Indeed, feedback gathered through Northern BC Tourism and Tourism Prince George has shown a desire by visitors to better understand and learn about the local First Nations.
"We want to make sure that people can enjoy it - it's a big part of tourism here - but also to highlight us as Lheidli and how we use this," Pountney said. "This is one of our shining spots in our territory."
Established as a Class A provincial park in March 2016, Ancient Forest-Chun T'oh Whutujut (pronounced Chun Toe Wood-yu-jud) covers 11,190-hectares and protects a portion of B.C.'s inland temperate rainforest.
The plan also covers neighbouring Slim Creek Provincial Park (506 hectares), which currently has no established trails, and the Ancient Forest-Chun T'oh Whutujut Protected Area (685 hectares).
Nowell Senior, one of the key figures in the creation and development of the park, welcomed the news. As well as providing the Lheidli T'enneh an opportunity to invite people to share their culture, Senior, who sat on an advisory committee as part of the process to draw the funding, said it will also deliver major improvements to the boardwalk that winds for 2.3 kilometres through the forest.
That work will include widening the boardwalk to allow use of a Trailrider - a type of wheelchair - to allow people with mobility challenges to tour the site. As it stands, they are limited to a 500-metre universal boardwalk.
It will also entail installing railing along both sides for the boardwalk's full length for the sake of the both the visitors and the trees.
"There are no rails right now, except in a couple small sections of boardwalk, and the idea is to have it protected all the way around so that engages people to enjoy the trip more safely and also to avoid doing damage to the integrity of the forest floor by stepping off the boardwalk and maybe climbing on cedar trees for photo ops," Senior said. "They shouldn't really do that...they don't realize it but over time it does do damage."
Pountney said the work will start this year. The deadline for completion is Oct. 31, 2027 but Lheidli T'enneh plan to have all in place in three years.
"There are a lot of different pieces to it...It's very interesting. It's going to be very neat to see the final product." he said.