CPAWS Nahanni tour draws 200 in Whitehorse

Harvey Locke questions the notion of “progress.” As a special adviser to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society he’s got a lot…

Harvey Locke questions the notion of “progress.”

As a special adviser to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society he’s got a lot of maps showing the westward migration of human civilization across North America over the last two centuries.

And he’s got others that show the shrinking of wilderness over the same time period.

CPAWS is looking to protect vast swaths of the Canadian boreal forest from so-called progress, said Locke.

And the watershed of the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, just across the Yukon border, is one place that should never be industrially developed, he said.

About 200 people packed the theatre at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse Sunday night to find out why.

They lined the perimetre of the room, leaning against the back and sidewalls or standing in the doorway, to hear Locke’s lecture about the values of the Nahanni.

Nahanni National Park was created in 1972 after the late Prime minister Pierre Trudeau visited the river. He was so impressed by the majesty of Virginia Falls that he put the kybosh on a proposed hydroelectric dam and pushed to protect the river corridor.

At the time, there was discussion about protecting the rest of the watershed, said Locke.

But the Liberal government of the day decided to do one thing at a time. So it created Nahanni National Park, but left protecting the rest of the watershed for another day.

“Thirty-five years later and it’s not done,” said Locke.

“Now there’s a large threat to put a mine in.”

The federal Parks department has a mandate to expand the existing 4,766 square kilometres of Nahanni, he said.

CPAWS wants the “ecological integrity” of the entire watershed protected — 35,000 square kilometres — which would incorporate the existing mine site at Prairie Creek that has sat 42 kilometres upstream from the confluence with the South Nahanni since the 1920s.

Exploratory drilling and underground development first took place in the 1960s, and the site was significantly upgraded in the early 1980s by a pair of entrepreneurs seeking to corner the silver market.

But prices crashed and the minesite, with buildings erected and a tailings pond dug, sat idle until 1991, when a predecessor to Canadian Zinc Corp. bought the property exploration option.

“We’re looking for lead, zinc, silver, copper,” Alan Taylor, vice-president of Canadian Zinc, said Friday.

“There’s a heck of a resource there, our resource is one of the highest grades that is known around the world,” Taylor said from his Vancouver office.

With today’s mining technology the Prairie Creek project “wouldn’t have any impact at all,” he said.

“The existing Prairie Creek claim block is less than 85 square kilometres.

“The surface leases, which the mine site is set up on, make up 1.3 square kilometres.”

Canadian Zinc has increased the defined resource from two million tonnes of zinc concentrate to 11 million tonnes, said  Taylor.

“There’s a long life to supply the existing mill, which is rated at about 1,000 tonnes per day, which is on site.”

On January 5, 2006, Canadian Zinc received good news from the Mackenzie Valley environmental assessment review board that recommended to the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada that the Prairie Creek development could proceed to the regulatory phase of approvals, as long as the company follows promised mitigation measures.

Canadian Zinc hopes to receive a new water permit early this year, and aggressively explore for further resources, said Taylor.

“We do have existing permits that we can explore on, but we want to explore on new areas on the property and that’s what this new permit would cover.”

Canadian Zinc has an application in to authorities in Yellowknife to reopen an existing winter road through the watershed, said Taylor.

“We’re not necessarily looking at an all-season road. We’re looking at a couple of scenarios, including a seasonal operation, which it was initially.”

But if Prairie Creek is to be economically feasible, it’s hard to imagine it operating on a winter road alone.

Viable production would probably require Canadian Zinc to ship its ore and concentrate year-round on a permanent road.

And a bridge would have to be built across the Liard River at Nahanni Butte, a community of about 100 Deh Cho First Nations people living at the confluence of the South Nahanni and the Liard.

There is a philosophical rift in government’s approach to economic development that is at work in the Nahanni debate.

Under the old school of economic development, project proponents and government representatives agree that big developments are the way to go, according to one economic development official with the Yukon government who did not want to be identified.

In the new school, they find out what local communities want.

“For the most part, the mine is out of line with what the community wants,” said the official, who worked for the Northwest Territories government in Nahanni Butte.

Some miners in Fort Simpson and Fort Liard want the mine opened, the official added.

But the Deh Cho at Nahanni Butte don’t want the mine, said Locke.

“They want their watershed protected.”

Despite best intentions and mitigation efforts, there are always environmental risks associated with mining projects, he added.

For more than 20 years, Neil Hartling, proprietor of Nahanni River Adventures, has travelled the South Nahanni.

At the CPAWS presentation Hartling told stories about witnessing flash floods, one of which killed a paddler.

A flash flood along Prairie Creek could wash the entire operation — including a toxic tailings pond — downstream, he said.

But even without such a catastrophe, the footprint of the mine will continue to grow, said Locke.

“There’s no such thing as a mine with no impacts,” he said.

“If they’re going to go to scale it’s going to have a huge impact.”

In order to expand the park boundaries to incorporate the mine site, Ottawa would have to buy out Canadian Zinc, which has invested $120 million in the property and projects $5 billion in potential resources.

 A federal buyout of private land is not unheard of, added Locke.

“The government buys private land to build public roads,” he said.

Locke and Hartling urged the audience to contact federal officials before and after the January 23 election to support the park expansion.

Yukon NDP candidate Pam Boyde endorsed the CPAWS plan in her platform.

“We have to protect the Nahanni,” Boyde said after the CPAWS forum.

“It’s too precious.”