During the past 20 years I have had the good fortune to travel throughout the Peel basin on water and by foot, along the Wind, Snake, Bonnet Plume, Hart, Ogilvie and Blackstone River watersheds, as well as the Peel River itself.
These trips revealed to me what many Yukon people already know, and many others are beginning to recognize — the rivers, mountains and boreal ecology of the Peel watershed constitute one of the finest wild places left on the planet.
These watersheds encompass habitat for a full suite of large mammals including grizzly bear and vulnerable woodland caribou; critical nesting areas for raptors such as the peregrine falcon; fresh and clean waters that also support an important downstream subsistence fishery, and a vast reservoir of northern biodiversity.
The intrinsic and economic value of maintaining these watersheds in their natural state is incalculable to northern people today and for many generations into the future.
Cash Minerals’ application for a land use permit to develop a network of winter roads, an airstrip and fuel caches in the Wind River valley in advance of land use planning, has been described by some industry observers as just another mineral exploration project — in this case for the naturally occurring metal uranium.
In truth, this proposed project reveals much about the perverse resource development process in the Peel watershed, fuelled by failed government land use policies and the absence of political leadership to manage our natural heritage for the public good.
This industrial road project is targeting the heart of the intact and internationally renowned Three Rivers wilderness within the greater Peel watershed.
Approving this unnecessary and highly speculative project would plant a large industrial footprint on the Wind River valley — a permanent blight that would sidestep the ongoing community-based land use planning process and seriously harm the Yukon’s wilderness tourism industry.
The record level of public comments about this “mere exploration project” shows how many people question this proposal.
Why is the Yukon government supporting and promoting major industrial development in the Peel watershed before a land use and conservation plan has been finished?
In the absence of a completed land-use plan, should the future of the Wind River valley be decided in two weeks by a technical environmental review of a risky venture proposed by a junior exploration company?
Why should mining exploration roads take precedence over all other land uses in the Wind River valley?
Why is the mining industry complaining to the minister about the high level of public concern over this project?
What kind of government refuses to acknowledge the human health and environmental hazards of uranium mining?
Why does this government want to avoid public debate on uranium mining and the nuclear industry in the Yukon?
Other jurisdictions have moratoriums on uranium mining and many communities have said “no” to uranium exploration.
What is the point of land use planning if major development decisions on the future of the Peel watershed will be made on a random project-by-project basis?
This is not the fault of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board.
In the absence of sensible government land-use policy, and before having the guidance that a land-use plan would provide, the board is being asked to do the impossible — to make a speedy judgment on behalf of everyone about the future of the Wind River valley.
If the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board recommends approval of the road, then it also will be placed in the awkward role of endorsing the possibility of uranium mining in the region.
Successive Yukon governments have failed to provide leadership in supporting the integrity of land-use planning in the Peel watershed.
Year after year, government ministers have offered bargain-sale exploration leases to the oil and gas industry — in spite of persistent calls for a moratorium on these giveaways until a land use plan is done.
And now the government is offering implicit support to road development in the Wind River valley.
What are the costs to other types of economic development? This region is internationally valued as a wilderness and as a benchmark of northern ecosystems.
It is also a well-known destination for adventure tourism, canoeing, hunting and fishing, cultural pursuits, research, education, the arts, and other types of outdoor recreation.
These activities in turn support jobs in marketing, communications, design, outdoor equipment sales, publishing, arts and crafts, and other enterprises.
Many businesses in the Peel region and the Yukon rely on these pristine wildlands, and together they have a tremendous potential for robust growth and contributions to the territorial economy — provided ecological integrity and scenic beauty are protected.
The majority of Yukon people support protection of the environment and, along with most Canadians, want to see governments conserve vital wilderness areas.
Recently, Ottawa announced plans to protect 10 million hectares in the Northwest Territories.
Earlier, it committed to quadrupling the size of Nahanni National Park.
Both moves show strong and widespread public, First Nations, and territorial government support for protected areas.
The Northwest Territories will now have a legacy of conservation achievement admired by northerners and all Canadians.
In the words of federal Environment Minister John Baird, “We are withdrawing massive areas from industrial development to protect some of the most impressive ecological and cultural wonders in the North for generations to come.”
If the Three Rivers wilderness is damaged by roads and industrial activities, even before the planning process is complete, a priceless natural asset of the Yukon could be permanently lost.
The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board must reject this unwarranted winter road application.
The proponent should be asked to continue their exploration activities in the same manner as in past years, using air access only.
The Yukon government should defer all significant development proposals such as this road until an approved land use plan is in place.
Once the land use plan is completed, and if indeed this mining exploration play ever proves to be an economically viable prospect, then Yukon people and Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board will have the tools to decide whether a permanent road or uranium mines are appropriate in the Wind River wilderness.
Juri Peepre is a Whitehorse-based conservationist.