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Koeye Point, British Columbia (March 28) - A First Nations community on the mid-coast of B.C. and three prominent conservation organizations today announced a unique partnership to secure ownership of a contentious property with tremendous conservation values in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Heiltsuk Nation, Ecotrust Canada and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation have committed to jointly purchasing and managing the Koeye River Lodge, which is perched on 74 hectares of land at the mouth of the Koeye River, a critical cultural site for Heiltsuk people, and a valley identified as having some of the highest conservation values of any watershed on the central coast.

QviItakv, a Koeye hereditary chief (whose English name is Edmin Newman), said: "The Koeye was one of the major village sites for the Heiltsuk people. We're just happy that we've got it and can save it from other developers, rebuild the salmon runs, and protect the headwaters from logging."

Ian Gill, president of Ecotrust Canada, said that the purchase of the Koeye River Lodge builds on a three-year partnership between Ecotrust Canada and the Heiltsuk, during which time Ecotrust Canada has assisted the community to develop a conservation-based development plan for the Heiltsuk territory. Ecotrust Canada has purchased the Koeye River Lodge with the assistance of Ecotrust, Raincoast and the Land Conservancy of B.C., and will transfer ownership to the Heiltsuk in the future.

"The Heiltsuk made it clear from the outset that Koeye is the heart of their territory. This is an step towards returning Heiltsuk lands to their rightful owners, and towards building a conservation economy on the central coast," said Gill.

The purchase of the property for almost $1-million (Canadian) was made possible through generous contributions from U.S. philanthropists Howard and Peter Buffett. Howard is a noted wildlife photographer and businessman, and Peter is a musician with a long-standing interest in indigenous rights. Both have visited the B.C. coast.

Spencer Beebe, president of Ecotrust, applauded the generosity of the Buffetts for enabling what he called "a just transition of ownership" from private fishing lodge operators to the Heiltsuk Nation. "We are delighted to be able to continue our support to the Heiltsuk and reclaim such an important part of their culture and history," Bebee said.

The Heiltsuk Tribal Council's Chief Councilor, Robert Germyn, said, "It's really good to see that through collaboration with NGOs like Ecotrust and Raincoast, and with the help of the Buffets, we've been able to secure the property. We are really ecstatic that a prime piece of real estate is coming back home."

Ian McAllister of the Raincoast Conservation society, said protecting the Koeye has long been an important goal of B.C. conservationists. "The Koeye river valley is the only place on the B.C. coast where grizzly bears walk white sand beaches in open sight of the Pacific. It is a spectacular valley and the opportunity to transfer the lodge into Heiltsuk control will ensure a sustainable future for the important river system."

The parcel of privately-owned land in question was clearcut logged by an earlier owner, and a lodge was build there in 1996, and improved by the current owners. However, it has never successfully operated as a commercial lodge, in part due to the opposition of the Heiltsuk.

The Heiltsuk have long opposed any development in the Koeye. Most of the valley is slated for logging by Weyerhauser, which holds the Tree Farm License in the area, but the valley is currently pristine. "Our next step now will be to start working with the licensees in the area," Chief Germyn said. "I think it makes sense now to seriously consider setting the Koeye aside."

In recent years, the Helitsuk have built cabins in the watershed to house cultural and scientific education camps for Heiltsuk and non-native children and elders, which have been supported by Ecotrust Canada and Raincoast.

New plans for the lodge include building and site renovations, establishment of a scientific field station, ecotourism operations, youth camps, and in the winter months use of the facility for a healing and recovery center for Heiltsuk and other people. Further funds remain to be raised to cover transaction costs and to provide operating monies for the successful operation of the facility under Heiltsuk leadership.

The Koeye River is 7 km south of Namu, and 45 km south east of Bella Bella, which is the main Heiltsuk village and the largest First Nations community on the central coast. The 18,000-hectare Koeye watershed was first identified as an area of critical ecological importance in a 1991 report by Ecotrust, An Inventory of Watersheds in the Costal Temperate Forests of British Columbia.

It is anticipated that the purchase of the lodge will be celebrated at a community feast to be held in the near future.