Peeling lessons from the South Chilcotin debate

The conservation-versus-industrial development debate playing out over the future of the Yukon's Peel watershed could learn from similar land use conflicts elsewhere.

The conservation-versus-industrial development debate playing out over the future of the Yukon’s Peel watershed could learn from similar land use conflicts elsewhere.

So says Dan Jepsen, the former head of the Association for Mineral Exploration British Columbia, and now chairman and CEO of C3 Alliance Corp., a B.C. company which recently put on a resource conference in Whitehorse for Yukon First Nations.

Jepsen said he well remembers the first time he persuaded tourism and mining reps to sit down at the same table to discuss a dispute about B.C.‘s South Chilcotin.

Just days before, the mining industry had published a letter in the Vancouver Sun that said tourism was “just a bunch of people who sold popcorn at movie theatres.”

“Everybody was mad at each other,” said Jepsen, including Whistler magnate Joe Houssian.

“He said, ‘Before we get started, I would just like to ask my mining friends here if they really think my job is selling popcorn in a movie theatre. You could have dropped a pin because nobody knew what to do.”

That was about six years ago, when Jepsen was still with the mineral association.

Thanks to that position, he’s seen his share of land use conflicts, he said.

The South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park, just north of Whistler, was one. And that battle, mostly between mining and tourism, had been raging since the 1960s.

As with the Peel, the David Suzuki Foundation weighed in to the Chilcotin debate, calling on British Columbians to “help save” the “ecological jewel.”

All of these experiences have shown Jepson that most issues can be resolved if all of the sides can come together with blank sheets of paper.

With the South Chilcotin, Jepsen was not only able to convince each side that they shared a lot of the same concerns, but also that they’d “be stronger together than as enemies.”

For the most part, the animosity was built on assumptions, he said.

Tourism didn’t think the mining companies would be willing to alter their plans to accommodate calving seasons, for example.

But they were.

Tourism was also pleasantly surprised to hear the mining industry would be willing to share pricey helicopter costs. Helicopters are needed for many mining projects.

By working together they became an affordable and efficient option for cargo delivery to remote cabins and also opened the door to affordable heli-ski services for a few operators and their clients, he said.

“I learned early on that tourism shared a huge amount of similar concerns to resource developers,” he said.

“And I really learned that I’d rather be in a situation where tourism was sitting with the resource sector than sitting with NGOs and the critics of resource development,” he said.

The same is true with First Nations, he said.

Jepsen first worked with Jerry Asp, the president and founder of C3 Alliance Corp, during negotiations between the Tahltan First Nation and the companies developing the Eskay Creek mining camp.

Asp’s First Nation wasn’t too worried about the underground mine in northern B.C. Its biggest concern was the road going into the mine and the increased access it would provide for hunters, said Jepsen.

The First Nation didn’t think the company would be willing to keep the road closed to the public, he said.

But it was.

An agreement was reached so the First Nation provided the road’s security, making sure only authorized people went through, he said.

In the South Chilcotin, all the issues were resolved except one, a controversial mine. But eventually they were they were able to reach a compromise, said Jepsen.

The mine stayed just outside the newly-made park boundaries but access, through the park to the mine, was granted.

“In these cases, not everybody can be happy,” he said. “There needs to be a give and take. There also needs to be understanding that … if your culture and heritage can be protected, and if the environment can be protected, the potential benefits of a mine are huge to communities.”

A mine’s annual revenues can range between $50 million to $60 million per year and it can create 300 jobs, said Jepsen. That could have a big impact on a small aboriginal community of a few hundred people.

So long as “cool heads prevail,” he said mining and tourism can work together.

Before getting into mining, Jepsen was a forestry engineer.

He remembers moonscape landscapes left in the wake of clearcuts.

The footprint left by mining can have a much smaller impact than that of forestry. So it should be easier for First Nations and tourism companies to find a balance with mining companies, said Jepsen.

But in the end, the Peel isn’t the South Chilcotin, he said.

And the pristine nature of the watershed’s tourism industry may not have as many similar interests with mining as the guides and outfitters in B.C. did.

But that doesn’t mean that the two sides can’t find a compromise if they sit around the table with blank sheets of paper, he said.

Some might argue that’s what land-use planning is supposed to do, but Jepsen disagrees.

“There is a huge role for land use planning,” he said. And it needs to be well funded to make sure the process is fair for small-scale organizations and First Nations.

But land use plans don’t tend to be applied on the ground very successfully, he said.

One B.C. area where Jepsen worked had a land-use plan, but he decided to put on what he called “joint solutions workshops.” They included affected First Nations, tourism and mining companies and key government officials.

While he refused to name the area, he said it was exactly like the Peel in that it was considered pristine with minimal tourism.

“I predicted early on that we wouldn’t be able to move forward in any case in any region,” he said.

“What actually happened, in every case and in every region, they found a joint solution that everybody was happy with.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at