Move Peel debate from fiction to facts

Yukoners have been debating what to do about the Peel River watershed since before the Peel Watershed Planning Commission was struck in 2004.

by Arthur Mitchell

Yukoners have been debating what to do about the Peel River watershed since before the Peel Watershed Planning Commission was struck in 2004. The commission’s final recommended plan was a major, if not the major, issue in the October 2011 general election and remains a hot-button issue dividing Yukoners today.

Increasingly, the debate has become polarized and framed as a pro-mining versus anti-mining debate. I believe this is inaccurate and short-sighted. If we are to make the best possible decisions about the future of the Peel region, we need to take a step back and make sure we are standing on solid ground and are using correct assumptions. We owe that to each other, as fellow Yukoners, who share this great territory and to future generations, who will be forever impacted by the decisions we make today and in the near future.

As the former leader of the Yukon Liberal Party, I was ultimately responsible for the position my party took to support the recommended Peel watershed regional land use plan. I did not come to that decision lightly and I was fully cognizant that the decision to support the plan would be controversial and would cost my party support from some voters and garner support from others.

The decision was not made by taking a straw poll to determine whether it would gain more votes than it cost. My former colleagues and I knew that we were responsible for making important decisions on behalf of Yukoners, present and future.

We met with mining industry professionals, environmental NGOs, talked to hundreds of Yukoners and met with the Peel planning commission to be briefed. I read the draft plan and the final plan from cover to cover, something I suspect less than five per cent of Yukoners have actually done.

The Peel watershed land use plan does not take a stand for tourism and against mining as many have claimed. In fact, I could not have supported such a stand.

For a quarter of a century, I owned and ran a business in Atlin that was dependent on healthy mining and tourism industries. I held a free miner’s licence in 1971 and have staked placer gold claims. I have invested in mining stocks, although not while I was an elected MLA. I have visited working mines and potential mines and I strongly believe that mining is crucial to the economy of Yukon, now and in the future.

The Peel land use plan concluded that industrial development in a large percentage of the Peel region was incompatible with other values, including First Nations traditional values, at this time. It recommended that industrial development, including mining, and intensive tourism businesses, could safely occur in 20 per cent of the region, with proper screening and controls and best practices. It also indicated that in another 25 per cent of the region, such industrial activity should not presently be allowed but might be safely possible in the future and should not be permanently precluded.

The planners concluded that the remaining 55 per cent of the region should remain as undeveloped wilderness for the protection of the ecosystem and the benefit of present and future Yukoners and Canadians. These recommendations were made after thousands of hours of research, interviews and consultations, based on the best scientific research to which the commission had access.

Yukoners currently are experiencing a major mining and mineral exploration boom, which is employing thousands of Yukoners directly and indirectly. While this boom presents many challenges, including impacting the affordability of housing and challenging our electrical energy infrastructure, I believe it is a net positive for Yukon.

This mining boom is occurring without major exploration and with no mining development within the Peel region. Yes, the Peel may contain many valuable mineral ore bodies or it may not. It would be prudent to continue exploration within those areas identified as possible for eventual future development in order to know more about what mineralization exists that may someday be possible to extract.

But for the mining industry, there are many other targets within the Yukon that can be staked and potentially developed. The Peel contains a major iron ore deposit. It may contain gold, silver, copper, tungsten, molybdenum, uranium, and other minerals.

With the possible exception of tungsten, which faces challenges as incandescent light bulbs are being phased out worldwide (although the industry continues to develop alternative uses for tungsten), does anyone in the Yukon doubt that long-term, the other minerals will increase in value?

Would anyone like to bet that $500 gold 10 years from now is more likely than $2,500 gold?

In fact, the mineral resources in the Peel region are a bank deposit that will only increase in value going forward, for mining companies, investors and Yukoners. We can afford to let future generations, with as yet undeveloped or perhaps undreamed of technology, consider whether to develop those resources.

Finally, there has been much said about the right of the Yukon government to make decisions about the future of the Peel. The fact is, the Yukon government, once the land use planning process, including the final public consultations soon to commence have concluded, does retain the right to accept, reject or vary the plan within well over 95 per cent of the region.

With this right comes responsibilities. A primary responsibility is to clearly explain its positions and how they have been arrived at. This issue is bigger than simply a decision about mining or not mining. It is about a legacy for future generations for all time.

As such, it is not sufficient to leave the debate and the explanations in the hands of one minister, the minister of Energy, Mines and Resources. It requires the leadership of the premier to convince Yukoners that their government is making the best possible decisions on their behalf.

I encourage the premier, who has earned the right to make this decision on behalf of Yukoners, to exercise the concurrent responsibility by clearly defining and explaining his government’s decisions.

Yukoners deserve no less.

Arthur Mitchell is the former leader of the Yukon Liberal Party.