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Second attempt at UNESCO bid could be in 2016

WINNIPEG - A second attempt is being made in a multimillion-dollar effort to get UNESCO recognition for a stretch of forest along the Manitoba-Ontario boundary, but a decision may not come until 2016.

Canada's pitch to have Pimachiowin Aki — an Ojibwa phrase that translates as "the land the gives life" — recognized as a world heritage site was dealt a setback last June, when UNESCO's world heritage committee deferred its decision. The committee said it was unclear whether the area is unique and requested more information from Canada.

The Manitoba government said Tuesday that governments and First Nations are still reworking the bid, but may not meet the Feb. 1 deadline for consideration at a UNESCO committee meeting in 2015. Anything filed after Feb. 1 of this year is put off until the committee's 2016 meeting.

"A lot of interviews are required of the aboriginal people in the communities. That work was launched and is ongoing as we speak," Manitoba Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh said.

Pimachiowin Aki is 33,400 square kilometres — almost half the size of New Brunswick. It is a large stretch of relatively untouched boreal forest and home to five First Nations that continue to practise traditional land use.

The Manitoba government has committed $10 million toward a trust fund for the project, which is governed by a non-profit agency that includes representatives from aboriginal communities. The province has spent another $4.5 million over the last decade. Ontario has contributed $850,000 to date.

The reworking of the bid is being funded in part by $234,000 the Manitoba government set aside in last spring's budget, Mackintosh said.

UNESCO recognizes more than 900 places around the globe as world heritage sites — everything from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the historic fishing town of Lunenburg, N.S. Most are recognized for either environmental qualities or cultural history.

The Pimachiowin Aki bid is a hybrid of natural and cultural aspects, and focuses on how the region's residents continue their traditional ties to the land.

UNESCO's hesitation last June was due in part to there being other areas in the world with similar aboriginal land use and to the existence of other forested areas that have been protected. The heritage committee asked for Canada to provide more information that might demonstrate what makes Pimachiowin Aki unique, or in UNESCO terminology, "of outstanding universal value."

The committee recognized that hybrid bids are a challenge to evaluate and has begun an interval review of its rules.

Mackintosh remains optimistic the region will be granted the world heritage designation in the end and believes the recognition would promote eco-tourism and help protect the area from unwanted development.

A consultant's report, however, has raised questions about how much tourism could be drawn to the remote, fly-in location. The report, by Marr Consulting for the non-profit Pimachiowin Aki Corp., said the region could attract fewer than 1,000 visitors a year.

When the UNESCO committee deferred its decision on last June, it granted world heritage status to another Canadian location — Red Bay, a small community on the southern coast of Labrador that contains the most complete and extensive example of 16th-century Basque whaling stations.

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