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End of the road

There is an old joke about the tourist who stumbles into a highway gas station and asks what the red flags are on the side of the Yukon highways.

There is an old joke about the tourist who stumbles into a highway gas station and asks what the red flags are on the side of the Yukon highways.

The gas jockey responds that those are put there by the highway crews to warn travellers that there is a bump in the road.

The tourist responds that down south things are done a little different.

When the highway crew finds a bump in the road, they don’t put a flag up.

They fix the bump.

The joke does skew the facts.

Fixing Yukon roads is not easy nor cheap as the bump is often due to permafrost heave or ground subsidence.

A lot of gravel usually has to be moved and compacted to fix these sort of things.

Luckily most Yukon highways have had the benefit of years of ongoing maintenance and redesign.

While they might not be perfect they are in reasonably good condition and get locals and even tourists to where they want to go.

The stretch of highway from Faro to Skagway is even over designed.

It was built to accommodate the heavy weight of the ore trunks from when the Faro Mine was running.

But there is one public highway that is not in good shape. This is the North Canol Highway.

Calling it a public highway is too generous.

No-one lives along it and there are no communities that require it to get anywhere.

It is essentially nothing more than a Second World War relic that for some reason the Yukon insists on maintaining as a road.

The North Canol Highway stretches from Ross River to the MacMillan Pass on the North West Territories border.

A seasonal road it is closed in the winter but can usually be driven by a regular vehicle in the summer months if one doesn’t mind a few rough patches.

This is all going to change.

The Yukon territorial government is going to pump about $70 million over the next five years or so into fixing it up.

Now this isn’t to benefit anyone living along the road.

There are no residences, nor communities, along the North Canol Road.

And it isn’t in the interests of tourism.

Rather, this very expensive upgrade is to service a proposed mine.

The Mactung Mine will be built right at the end of the road on the NWT border.

As the name implies the mine will produce tungsten.

This metal has numerous industrial and military applications and is quite useful.

It will be the only tungsten mine in North America assuming the tungsten mine in the NWT does not reopen.

The issue is that the mine needs a nice year-round access road to get supplies in and ore out.

The Yukon government, in its wisdom or lack thereof, has decided to spend more than $70 million to improve the road.

The upgrades to the road are quite substantial.

They include widening the road from one gravel lane to two and capable of taking traffic moving at 80 km/h.

There will also be re-alignment of the road in numerous areas to get around difficult and steep terrain.

Now for all those Yukoners who live on crappy roads this project should provide inspiration.

This columnist lives in downtown Whitehorse in arguably what is the trendiest condo complex around.

Despite this the road in front of the condo is usually full of potholes.

Around the corner, a portion of it does not even come close to meeting any safety or design standards.

Whitehorse does have criteria for who pays for improving roads.

Part of the costs are covered by the landowners along the route and part are paid for by the city.

Getting everyone to agree on what the costs are and who should pay what percentage can be difficult.

If there is no agreement the road does not get upgraded.

Now the Yukon government has shown a possible solution because none of the street dwellers will have to pay a cent.

All that has to be done is to stake the clay cliffs at the end of this particular street.

It is easy to stake almost anywhere within the Yukon, including within Whitehorse, as the archaic system of free entry for mine staking sets the rules.

Essentially, mining is seen as the first and best possible use of all land, irrespective of other values.

Once the staking is done, a quick announcement would be made that a mine could be developed on these claims but only if the road is improved.

The Yukon government will shovel money to improve the access route, in this particular case the road in front of a condo owned by a certain part-time environmentalist.

Once the work is done the claims can lapse and everything goes back to normal.

Except for the fact taxpayer dollars have been spent to improve a road that should have been paid for by other means.

The Mactung Mine is in a similar situation.

About $2,000 for every man, woman and child in the Yukon will be spent so a mining company can access a remote site.

There is money in mining these days.

Sometimes you just have to look at the end of the road to see it.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist.