Minding the miners

Lewis Rifkind In the old days, back during the original Klondike Gold Rush, it is said that the only ones who got rich were those who mined the miners. Inn-owners, barkeepers and the like all did pretty well for themselves while the poor Stampeders tried

COMMENTARY

by Lewis Rifkind

In the old days, back during the original Klondike Gold Rush, it is said that the only ones who got rich were those who mined the miners.

Inn-owners, barkeepers and the like all did pretty well for themselves while the poor Stampeders tried to wrestle gold dust from the gravel.

Things are slightly different now, although there is no denying that barkeepers still do a thriving business in the Yukon gold fields.

It has just been announced that the Yukon government will spend $450,000 under the Resource Access Road Program to upgrade resource roads in the Goldfields area.

In addition, to help placer miners get an early start on their mining season, Yukon government highway crews started clearing the placer mine access roads in mid-February so the roads could be open to traffic by mid-March.

Since public dollars and highway crews are now maintaining these resource roads, the question does arise as to their designation. Are these now public roads, open to one and all? Is this the start of extending the Yukon highway grid south from Dawson towards the White River region?

The environmental impacts of this are potentially quite serious. This road grid extension is being done without a land use plan in place. Once an area is opened up by well-maintained roads, habitat fragmentation and increased harvesting is sure to follow.

As if that wasn’t enough government largesse, Yukon will be providing $196,000 over three years to undertake an economic impact analysis and public awareness campaign.

These studies are important (at least the economic analysis bit) and should be done for all industries active in the Yukon. It will be interesting to see if the placer royalty rate is part of this analysis.

The rate, set in 1906, is 2.5 per cent of $15 per ounce gold, or thirty seven and a half cents. This rate hasn’t changed in over a century. Gold, on the other hand, has multiplied in value 80 times over and is currently selling for around $1,200 per ounce.

In 2013 it is estimated that the Yukon placer industry extracted $69.4 million in gold, and paid about $18,000 in royalties. If the royalty rate was set to 2.5 per cent of today’s value of gold, we would have received around $1.5 million in royalties.

A non-renewable resource is being removed from the Yukon without a decent royalty being paid. In return, the environmental impacts are long-lasting and negative. A decent royalty would partially offset this harm.

Something is also happening that is not a giveaway of tax dollars but is related to land ownership.

The Yukon government has made changes to the Rural Residential Land Application Policy for Placer Occupancy. Placer miners with residences on claims that pre-date 1999 can apply to own the land.

It would appear this policy revision was done with no public consultation back in late 2015. One wonders what other revisions to various government policies are in the works without any public consultation.

This land ownership decision is somewhat unorthodox, as the purpose of placer mining is to mine the land, not own it.

It is estimated about 70 private property lot applications could happen in the placer gold fields, irrespective of any other industrial, environmental, community or local land-use plans.

By allowing this to happen, the Yukon government is contradicting the approach that emphasized rural development be concentrated at development nodes.

The environmental impacts of the placer cabin applications will be quite serious.

Allowing old placer cabins to become

permanent rural residences will reinforce rural sprawl and contribute to habitat fragmentation.

Up until now, once a placer operation was finished, everybody moved on. When reclamation methods are done to the site, it was the start of the claim reverting to some form of ecological normalcy. If the claim area becomes private property with a permanent residence atop it and connected by an access route to the nearest community, there will be little chance of that.

The return of the natural landscape and ecosystem is what placer operations should be aiming for at the end of the resource extraction period. The possibility of private ownership of a portion of the claim may prevent this.

This might be surprising for some to read, but the Yukon Conservation Society is not necessarily against placer mining.

The old grounds in the Dawson region can be reworked with modern methods, and apparently quite profitably. But the key word here is placer mining, not placer mining then private land ownership.

For the Yukon government to spend a lot of resources on facilitating placer mining, and also to permit some to get private ownership of a portion of that placer land, is more than mineral mining. It is mining of the Yukon taxpayers and the land regulations to the detriment of the environment.

Lewis Rifkind is the Yukon Conservation Society’s mining analyst.

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