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Commentary: Rebooting the Dawson land use planning process is a chance to do things right

“We have an opportunity to get things right in the Dawson region”

Randi Newton

Land use planning for the Dawson region is set to restart this fall, after a four-year hiatus while the courts resolved the Peel Watershed land use planning case.

For most people, it’s likely that the Dawson region does not evoke the same images of wilderness that the Peel does. But it too contains landscapes of scenic grandeur and large areas of incredible ecological and cultural importance. And it deserves more protection than the previous planning process was on track to provide.

This fresh start is a chance to avoid the rapid decline of wilderness seen elsewhere in Canada and to protect the wild spaces and wildlife that Yukoners value. While we can expect the plan to enable development and resource extraction, it must be grounded in ecological reality.

Some will argue that we don’t need to protect wilderness in the Dawson region, that all areas should be up for exploration, and that industry regulations are enough to protect land and wildlife. We only have to look to the south to see that, despite promises of regulation and reclamation, development whittles away wilderness when there isn’t a long-term vision for sustainability.

Proponents of development made these same claims – that project-by-project regulation and reclamation are sufficient to protect wilderness and wildlife – in an attempt to block the creation of Tombstone Territorial Park. If they had not been rebuffed, one of the Yukon’s most iconic wilderness destinations might have been lost.

Ecologists and traditional knowledge holders have also debunked these arguments, and most Yukoners have rightly rejected them. Conservation studies show we need to protect about half of a given landscape from industrial development and resource extraction to avoid losing wild species and ecosystems.

Of course, significant parts of the Dawson region will include mining and other industries. While they’re an important part of its economy and its heritage, the history of the region is more than mining, and its future will be too.

We have an opportunity to get things right in the Dawson region. It’s a diverse landscape that’s about the same size as Denmark, and with many areas deserving of protection. The Scottie Creek wetlands sit at the southern edge of the region and support thousands of migrating waterfowl. Alongside the Forty Mile, Sixty Mile and Ladue Rivers you’ll find the Forty Mile caribou herd, which has shrunk because of habitat destruction and increased human access.

The Tatonduk River watershed is as stunning as anywhere in the Peel, and it’s an important ecological connection between Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska and Ni’iinlii Njik (Fishing Branch) Park and Habitat Protection Area. Tombstone Park is perched northeast of Dawson City and counted 23,000 visitors at its visitor centre last season. At the north end of the region, the Porcupine caribou herd is found amidst the peaks of the Ogilvie Mountains.

Wild species and natural ecosystems have evolved in the region for hundreds of thousands of years and the land has sustained Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people and their culture for millennia. Many people, First Nation and non-First Nation, value the region today for the opportunities it provides to hunt, fish, trap, camp, pick berries, hike and paddle.

Given all of these factors, the task of the Dawson Regional Planning Commission, as defined in the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA), is to develop a plan that fulfills a vision for sustainable development, meaning “beneficial socio-economic change that does not undermine the ecological and social systems upon which communities and societies are dependent.”

This means that the plan for the Dawson region must be as concerned with ecological and cultural integrity as it is with economic viability. Yes, mining and industry will play a key part in the region, but we must also ensure that the region’s wild landscapes, wild species and ways of life are not undermined with short-sighted thinking and development that is too rapid, too widespread.

Despite its best efforts, it does not appear that the previous Dawson Regional Planning Commission was on track to developing a plan based on sustainable development. Not long before the planning process was put on hold, the commission released five plan alternatives for feedback. Two of the scenarios didn’t include any new protected areas.

The other three options called for protected areas that covered 16 per cent, 20 per cent and 22 per cent of the region, all falling short of what’s needed for long-term sustainability.

We can do better this time around, and develop a plan that meaningfully protects the land and waters that wildlife and people rely on. Determining what and how much land to protect should be undertaken in the spirit of reconciliation and grounded in traditional knowledge, science and the voices of Yukoners.

As planning gets underway again for the Dawson region, let’s plan for a legacy we can be proud of. Let’s plan for a region that includes some mining and development, and for a region with a sustainable economy, strong cultural ties, room to roam for grizzlies and caribou, clean water for salmon, and intact wilderness to support the ways of life we value.

Randi Newton is the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon’s Conservation Coordinator