The Peel River watershed is located in northeastern Yukon and northwestern N.W.T. The river’s six main tributary waterways are the Hart, Blackstone, Ogilvie, Snake, Wind and Bonnet Plume rivers. This beautiful landscape covers roughly 68,000 square kilometres and is larger than Yellowstone and Banff national parks in size. It is one of the only natural and intact ecosystems of this size left in the world today.
The watershed, located at the northern tip of the Rocky Mountains, is key to the survival of a wide range of animals such as moose, grizzly and black bears, Dall sheep, caribou and gyrfalcons.
The Peel Watershed Planning Commission has set an 80 per cent protection plan in place, leaving the rest of the watershed open for development.
The watershed has been home to four First Nations for thousands of years, including the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Vuntut Gwitchin, Na-Cho Nyak Dun and the Tetlit Gwich’in. These First Nation groups have depended on this land for their survival for many generations. They rely on the abundance of caribou, moose and sheep. The people have practised their own ways of animal conservation and have respected the land. Overactivity and development could cause populations to decline.
We need to think about future generations and their survival. The First Nations want this intact natural ecosystem 100 per cent protected. We should listen to their voices.
There are three main threats to the Peel River watershed and to its First Nations.
Mining represents one of the biggest threats. There are more than 8,000 mineral claims. Without protection of the whole area, mines will quickly set up and start to work this remarkable landscape. It is unknown what the companies are after in terms of minerals, but they must be sufficient to start a mine and to make profits.
The initial start of mining involves the development of roads, campsites and the mine site itself. This will cause serious forest fragmentation and with this would come an increase in human activities, such as hunting, poaching and roadkill. The Porcupine caribou herd relies on this area for its winter range. If there is overhunting, stress on the herd will compromise its future.
Mines may also leave behind lakes of highly toxic waste called tailings ponds. In the Faro mine, for instance, they mined all the minerals they needed, then took all the profits and left. They ended up leaving behind a big lake of waste for the government to clean up.
My guess is that the same thing will happen and will cost the government millions of dollars and a lifetime to clean. It may look clean in the end, but there will always be chemical waste there and the land will never be the same.
Oil and gas represent another threat to the animals and the watershed. There is a large supply of oil and gas on the western side of the Peel watershed.
The third, but not least, threatening activity to this wilderness, involves roads and development. Development is the worst thing that has happened to our world. Development and road building destroyed many beautiful and pristine places in our world and the Peel might be next.
If the Yukon government doesn’t protect the Peel, development will take place for mining and oil production. This will leave hundreds, if not thousands, of square kilometres of land impacted by clearing or mines. Vast amounts of forest will be fragmented and forever altered.
Who is in support of the Peel River watershed?
The Yukon to Yellowstone Conservation Initiative, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Yukon Conservation Society are conservation groups working towards 100 per cent protection.
As well, David Suzuki, the First Nations of the Peel watershed, other people of the Yukon and many around the world wish to conserve the Peel. All of these people and groups want 100 per cent protection for this beautiful place.
As David Suzuki says: “Every drop counts, cause every drop is different.” If one of these drops is disturbed or polluted, then the whole network is disrupted or polluted.
This land we live on works as one. The water keeps the animals alive as well as us. Fresh air also keeps everything alive. Plants and animals live and feed off each other. It is one big cycle of life and if you disturb that cycle of life, living things die!
Animal populations decrease and potentially go extinct due to loss of forests and increased hunting. Clean air becomes dirty and pollutes our bodies. Everyone loses in the end. Minerals and oil leave the country to be manufactured elsewhere and the profits go to the company mining the materials.
Many Yukon residents will have jobs and some money will go to the economy. Then again, the government will be left to spend money on cleanup, which drains the economy once again. Many of these mines may not have the best plans for cleanup and they’re not willing to split profits. Mines act like they want to protect the land, but when they start they throw the whole cleanup plan out the door.
In the end, there’s a closed mine and a pile of waste left while the mine owner is in a tropical country somewhere at his or her new beach house living off that project. The government uses its money to do cleanup duties.
In the long run, we are not going to have any natural watersheds left in the world. We need to protect the land we live on.
The Peel River watershed is one of the largest and most naturally intact watersheds left in the world. With this great landscape untouched by development, we need to start looking towards future generations and what we leave them.
Money, or the inexplicable beauty of nature?
It’s up to us as a nation to decide.
James Magun Jr. is a Grade 12 student in Watson Lake.