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How caribou can boost gross domestic product

The recent brouhaha over the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board icing the puck on Northern Cross's drilling application prompts an economic development idea.

The recent brouhaha over the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board icing the puck on Northern Cross’s drilling application prompts an economic development idea.

On one hand, we can have some sympathy for Northern Cross after assessors at the Dawson City office told them, after a two-year process, that their application has to start again with an expensive, time-consuming executive committee review.

On the other hand, as last Friday’s Yukon News editorial pointed out, the Porcupine caribou herd is too important to risk if, as the Dawson YESAB office claims, we don’t have enough information on caribou and the environment to make a decision.

The problem is that we don’t know enough about the caribou and their environment now. How can we assess what impact more drilling might have on the caribou if we don’t know much about the current herd’s status and habits? And if the drilling goes ahead, how can we track how caribou numbers and migration patterns change if we don’t know what they’re doing right now? This is what the experts mean by “baseline” data.

I suspect that everyone involved would agree that the best solution would be to get a time machine and go back 10 years to do a big program of baseline data gathering.

In retrospect, one might even say that the Yukon government should have been spending a bigger portion of its billion-dollar transfer payment on baseline data collection over the last decade. If resource development is a priority, then spending on baseline data to help with the assessment process would make a lot of sense.

The Yukon government budget is about $450 million per year higher now than it was a decade ago. If even five or 10 per cent of that increase had been dedicated to baseline environmental research around the Yukon, we would know a lot more about the environment in the Dempster gas fields, central Yukon mines and southeast Yukon gas fields.

But we don’t have a time machine. The question is what we do now.

We need to avoid a repeat of the Northern Cross situation if we can. Otherwise, in 2021 we will be reading that the Casino application has been put on hold because not enough baseline data was gathered in 2016.

Unfortunately, caribou don’t carry smartphones so we can’t just ask Google or the National Security Agency to track their behaviour.

So here’s an idea: stimulate the Yukon economy by hiring lots of people to do baseline research in regions where gas and mining YESAB applications are likely to occur. I don’t mean a million bucks. I mean a major program of tens of millions of dollars. If resource development is a priority, then allocating one to two per cent of our $1.2 billion budget to scientific research is worth doing.

First of all, this would be great for science. We need to know more about the Yukon’s environment, not just for resource development, but also to track climate change impacts. It is also just a good idea in general, since much of the Yukon remains relatively unstudied by modern science. The information would also allow us in the future to make much better decisions about projects with much less uncertainty.

Secondly, the Yukon economy is slow. Lots of wildlife biologists, hydrologists and other experts are being under-utilized. So are the people that cook their breakfasts, fly their equipment around and carry their samples up and down mountains. Better than having them sit idle, let’s get them in the field collecting data.

Thirdly, it could be our contribution to human knowledge, and a way to help other northern jurisdictions in the future. In the long run, it might even turn out that being the most intensively researched northern jurisdiction generated decades of benefits. It would be great if we became a real environmental knowledge hub, with say 10 times more scientists than we have today. If they become as successful and respected in their fields as some current Yukon scientists are, these folks could attract research money from Outside foundations and do work around the world.

At the very least, this idea should be compared to the default Yukon government strategies of re-paving roads or hiring two per cent more people in each existing department.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith