Why Yukon needs a wetlands policy

Imagine playing soccer or hockey except that the rules are not defined. Nobody knows what to aim for. Unfortunately, this is happening in Yukon when it comes to managing development activities in wetlands.

Jamie Kenyon

Special to the News

Imagine playing soccer or hockey except that the rules are not defined. Nobody knows what to aim for. Referees are unable to make consistent calls. Players become frustrated, spectators confused. Unfortunately, this is happening in Yukon when it comes to managing development activities in wetlands.

This summer, a placer mining company, Northern Exposures Inc., applied for a water licence as part of the permitting process. Interveners, including two First Nation governments (Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Na-cho Nyak Dun) and the Yukon Conservation Society, were concerned about losing valuable natural wetlands. The Yukon Water Board issued the licence on condition there would be no mining of any undisturbed natural wetlands on the company’s claims on the Indian River near Dawson City.

Not surprisingly, Northern Exposures and the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association are unhappy with this decision. It limits their ability to access the gold. It could ultimately affect their profits. The Yukon government is now appealing the water board’s decision via the courts — putting off a final resolution to this conflict to some point in the future.

Conflicts like this hurt both the environment and the economy. There are no winners.

This issue matters to all Yukoners. Healthy wetlands are central to our quality of life. They provide clean water, habitat for important species like moose and waterfowl, carbon storage and other important cultural values. And it matters because the mining industry creates jobs and helps support our economy.

At Ducks Unlimited Canada, we believe there is a straightforward solution. The Yukon Water Board says it needs guidance on how to balance wetland values with industrial development. Specifically mentioned in the Northern Exposures decision document is the lack of a wetland policy. It asks for guidance on how resource development can occur in a way that conserves and maintains wetland values and functions.

This is not the first mention we’ve heard of this. The territorial government’s water strategy, released in 2014, commits to “a policy for managing Yukon wetlands … in partnership with other governments, stakeholders and the public.” Many jurisdictions in Canada already have a wetland policy in place (Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and the Government of Canada). Others are working on it.

Wetland policies vary between jurisdictions depending on their own unique set of circumstances. However, all effective policies have a number of common characteristics. A conservation goal for wetlands — indicating what amount of wetland loss or gain is acceptable within a jurisdiction — is clearly stated with a goal of maintaining current wetlands being the most common. Ecologically and culturally significant wetlands are identified as conservation priorities. Tools, such as best management practices, that avoid and minimize impacts to wetlands where development can occur, are provided. In situations where the policy goal cannot be achieved, guidelines are provided on how to compensate for losses of wetlands where impacts are unavoidable.

In other words, a wetland policy better defines the rules of the game, much like the rulebook for soccer or hockey. We know when a goal is scored and what constitutes a penalty in those sports because of the rulebook. Similarly, implementing a wetland policy would provide clarity to Yukoners that their economic and environmental values would be upheld. It would also provide industry with welcome certainty in the form of clear rules and guidelines. Future potential conflicts and their associated costs would be minimized.

Ducks Unlimited Canada strongly encourages the creation of such a policy for Yukon. In the next month or two, Yukoners will be going to the polls to elect our next government. It’s a perfect time for Yukoners to remind candidates of the existing recommendations and commitments to a wetland policy. We all need to call for its implementation and development.

Jamie Kenyon is the conservation programs specialist with Ducks Unlimited Canada’s Yukon office.

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