A sweetheart deal sours

To understand why Liard First Nation is threatening to sue the territory unless big changes are made to the draft Forest Resources Act, one must…

To understand why Liard First Nation is threatening to sue the territory unless big changes are made to the draft Forest Resources Act, one must bushwhack through thickets of jargon and wade through a swamp of acronyms.

Few bother to make the journey. But it is worth the hassle, because debate over the draft law will help decide how much of Yukon’s boreal forests should be logged, and under what terms this logging should occur.

But this story is about more than spruce and lodgepole pine. It is also about the government’s attempt to woo one First Nation with a sweetheart deal, and how the deal has soured.

The obscurity of the subject suits certain interests. For only after poring over an inch-thick pile of documents does it become clear that some explanations offered by Yukon officials make no sense.

Why did the government kill a council that was working on an important blueprint for how to manage most of Yukon’s harvestable forests?

And why did the Yukon back away from a revenue-sharing deal it struck with Liard First Nation?

Answers offered by Yukon officials don’t check out.

But first, the back story.

Liard, unlike most of Yukon’s First Nations, has no final land claims agreement.

This poses a problem for a territorial government eager to kick-start its timber industry, as 70 per cent of Yukon’s harvestable forests lie within the traditional territory of the Kaska — a group of five First Nations spread over southern Yukon and northern BC.

No final agreement, no certainty for forestry companies. This became clear in the mid-1990s, when the Kaska used court orders to halt logging in southeast Yukon.

Since then, control over Yukon’s resources have devolved to the territory from Ottawa. The forestry bill is meant to replace federal logging laws that date back to the 1960s.

But before the Yukon drafted its forestry bill, it negotiated a number of special deals with the Kaska to prevent another war in the woods.

One such deal led to the creation of the Kaska Forest Resources Council.

The council was to produce forestry plans for southeast Yukon, which would identify which areas would be open to commercial logging and which would remain protected.

A regional plan is supposed to be in place before an annual allowable cut for the region is set.

The council, which had an equal number of representatives from the Kaska and government, spent five years working on these plans, at a cost of $1.1 million, until this summer, when the government pulled the plug.

The council’s mandate had been met, Yukon officials claim. But they haven’t.

The council’s main task was to produce a number of forestry plans, all of which remain incomplete, said Norm Maclean, the council’s chair.

“We didn’t get there,” he said.

More community consultations are needed before the plans are ready to be signed, said Maclean.

In one case, a plan to manage logging around and north of Watson Lake exists only as an early draft. No public consultation has been held.

Also unfinished is a set of rules designed to ensure Kaska traditional knowledge would be part of the plan. With the council on hiatus, this work may be lost.

The plans will be finished during one-on-one talks between the territory and the Kaska, say officials.

But Liard’s Chief Liard Macmillan isn’t holding his breath. He’s heard such promises since April. Six months later, substantial talks have yet to begin, he said.

He’s also unhappy to see the government back away from another deal, struck in 2004, that offered the Kaska a lucrative royalty regime for forestry. Under the agreement in principle, the Kaska would split forestry royalties 50:50 with the territory, and keep all stumpage fees.

The territory backed out of this deal because of a rift opening up between Kaska nations, officials claim.

Such a rift does exist. But that does not explain why the government ditched the deal.

Until this year, resource negotiations for the Kaska had been handled by the Kaska Tribal Council, a nonprofit group based in BC that represents all Kaska nations.

In January, Liard First Nation fell out with the tribal council. It told the Yukon government the tribal council would no longer represent them in forestry talks.

The territory asserts this change voids the deal.

Again, this is not true.

The agreement was not signed by the tribal council, but by individual First Nations.

Who represents Liard First Nation is their own business, and has no bearing on the deal, said Macmillan.

“There’s no excuse for (the territory) to pull out of that agreement,” he said.

Why would government dash these deals? Observers suggest two motives.

Government leaders may feel, in hindsight, the royalty regime was too rich. Kaska infighting provided a convenient excuse to renegotiate.

Others say the draft regional plan may be too conservation-friendly for government officials eager to see commercial logging.

The Kaska’s draft regional plan sets aside about 35 per cent of Kaska territory as off-limits to commercial logging so it could be preserved “for the grandchildren.” Conservationists cheered.

But there’s no longer any assurance this land will stay protected, even if it stays in the regional plan.

The forestry bill allows the Resources minister to overrule parts of regional plans he dislikes.

Whatever the reasons for government pursuing a new course with the Kaska, the fact Resources staff resort to misleading statements to justify their actions does not look good.

Resources staff may be poorly informed. Or they may be deliberately misstating facts.

Neither option reflects well on the territorial government.

By abandoning the deals, Yukon breaks from a path recommended by Ottawa in a report produced by George Tough in 2002.

Tough recommended the now-abandoned forestry deals be struck with the Kaska to create economic certainty for foresters in southeast Yukon.

These deals were controversial at their time. Canada’s auditor general complained in 2004 that giving the Kaska control over natural resources removes an important incentive to sign land claim agreements.

But with these deals abandoned, the much-sought economic certainty for foresters appears, for now, to be lost.

And what of the forestry bill?

Even thornier questions surround it, and how the government handled consultation with First Nations.

Liard First Nation says it was left out. But evidence suggests the real problem may be poor communication between the Kaska.

The Yukon government gave $115,000 to the Kaska Tribal Council to participate in consultations.

It’s unclear what this money bought, as Liard First Nation insists it had little say in the bill’s development.

Macmillan describes the tribal council as a clique of unelected, hereditary chiefs. That’s why his First Nation put the tribal council on notice this January that they would remain only as observers on the council until the organization cleans house, approves a constitution and strikes a new resource-sharing accord.

But even if consultations broke down, it’s hard to understand why the government produced a forestry bill that does not recognize the Kaska’s traditional land. The bill only defines traditional territory as is identified in final agreements and the Umbrella Final Agreement — deals the Kaska have spurned.

No surprise, then, that the Kaska have big problems with the forestry bill.

Brad Cathers, the Resources minister, describes the Kaska as a vocal minority.

That may be so, but they are a minority with a claim to nearly one-quarter of Yukon’s landmass and most of the territory’s forests.

Losing Kaska support for the territory’s forestry plans is a big deal — probably of far greater consequence than whether Yukon has a new set of forestry laws.

These laws won’t do much good if the Kaska decide to once again block logging with court orders.

Cathers and his staff have work ahead of them to repair their damaged relationship with the Kaska.

They could begin by dropping the misleading statements.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.