It’s time for Peel Plan B

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission process has been compromised, perhaps irrevocably. Aboriginal leaders want the region protected. Miners want to strip out the region's uranium.

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission process has been compromised, perhaps irrevocably.

Aboriginal leaders want the region protected.

Miners want to strip out the region’s uranium.

These are incompatible interests.

And the Yukon government supports resource extraction.

Those who want the area preserved can’t win.

So it’s time for aboriginal leaders and conservationists to consider alternatives for the Peel Watershed, before it’s too late.

They should demand a national park.

Here’s why.

It is now clear the Yukon government turned away tourism operators, conservation organizations, trappers, outfitters and other groups looking for support in efforts to protect the region.

The government had to remain neutral until a draft plan was produced, said officials.

That directive came directly from Premier Dennis Fentie last fall.

But Fentie’s rule only applied to the pro-conservation lobby.

In February, even as officials were professing a hands-off approach, Energy, Mines and Resources officials were meeting with miners for some “serious discussion around the Peel planning commission.”

So there was one rule for the industrial lobby and another for everyone else.

Curiously, it was Energy, Mines and Resources, the resource-extraction arm of the Yukon government, that was tasked with co-ordinating the Peel Watershed information.

It chose not to submit pro-preservation data.

Mines officials couldn’t reconcile the strongly anti-development stance of the Yukon Environment Department, so it told officials to send along their response to the commission on their own.

But it only did so only after ensuring Fentie personally vetted Environment’s response.

And Fentie, a former logger and mining truck driver, freaked out.

Fentie, with Energy Minister Brad Cathers present, made an “irate” phone call to Environment’s deputy minister Kelvin Leary (it is still not clear what role Environment Minister Elaine Taylor played in the fiasco—if she was ever aware of it or even cares – she’s never discussed the Peel controversy. In fact, she’s been AWOL for more than a month) about his staffers’ Peel analysis, which was clearly intended for the commission.

But the commission never saw it.

After Fentie’s angry, bullying intervention, the commission received an anemic rewrite of the detailed review from Environment, down to just four wishy-washy pages from the initial 22.

The commission asked for more, but was told that was all the department’s biologists, hydrologists, land-use experts and other highly skilled staff could come up with.

So the commission drafted its plans without key technical advice and criticism from the one department that leans toward preserving the region.

And it is still too proconservation.

In documents obtained by the News, oil and gas officials decided not to waste time on the Peel process, with the tacit approval of their superiors, because “we do not believe the government will support the plan in its current form.”

The process is too biased towards preservation, the officials noted at the end of May, after the draft plan was finished.

That draft plan permits development access to wide swaths of the remote region that is considered one of the last wild regions on the continent.

It also recognizes mineral claims staked in a mad rush over the last five years in the leadup to the land-planning process, most of them for high-impact uranium development.

The Peel Planning Commission is a product of the Yukon land claim Umbrella Final Agreement, a process designed to give the territory’s aboriginal people influence over regional land planning over the territory’s settlement and nonsettlement lands.

It should be noted aboriginal leaders have expressed opposition to any mineral, or oil and gas development north of the Wernecke Mountains, the heart of the Peel Watershed.

They know once resource extraction happens, the wilderness vanishes.

The commission’s goal is to ensure the region’s wilderness, wildlife, cultural resources and waters are maintained over time while managing all resource use, including trapping, recreation, outfitting, tourism, subsistence harvests and exploration and development of nonrenewable resources.

But, through the concerted efforts of Fentie’s government, that’s been compromised.

To sum up, the government’s Energy, Mines and Resources Department, which has shaped the government’s response, has worked closely with development interests during the pre-draft plan process.

However, First Nations, outfitters, tourism operators, trappers and other pro-preservation interests were intentionally denied the same support.

At the same time, Environment’s influence over the commission process was blunted by Fentie, who personally intervened in departmental affairs.

The intention was clearly to allow development.

And it succeeded. Mining claims have been grandfathered in the 59 per cent of the region designated protected, and another 37 per cent of the watershed can be developed.

This isn’t what First Nations want. They want the heart of the Peel shielded from resource development.

But now, that’s not likely to happen.

Officials in Energy, Mines and Resources believe the draft plan is still too biased toward preservation. So much so, they have diverted staff attention from the plan because they are convinced government won’t accept it.

So, in this case, the planning process laid out in the Umbrella Final Agreement has been corrupted.

And that should force First Nation leaders, and all others who want the Peel preserved, to consider alternatives.

The Yukon has screwed the process. It’s time to involve Ottawa.

The Peel is a rare ecosystem with thriving populations of large carnivores and their prey.

It’s an important staging area for the continent’s migrating waterfowl and fully one-quarter of the territory’s peregrine falcons nest there.

It is an intact wilderness on a continent with almost none left.

And that makes it a region of local, national and international significance.

With mining companies staking the region like mad, aboriginal leaders and others who want preservation have few options left.

At this point, the planning process is so compromised, sufficient protection of the wilderness can’t be guaranteed.

In fact, development and conservation are incompatible goals in the Peel Watershed.

So those who want it preserved, especially First Nations, should bump up the fight.

They should demand national park status.

It’s the one sure way to keep the mineral companies, supported by bureaucrats, from sullying the region forever for the sake of a decade’s worth of profits.

In fact, it’s the only way this last great wilderness will be available for future generations. (Richard Mostyn)