Peel watershed conservationists won more than just an award last week.
They also won nationwide recognition and a fighting chance to preserve the integrity of the Bonnet Plume, Wind and Snake rivers against possible oil and gas development.
Canadian Geographic awarded silver to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon’s Three Rivers 2003 multimedia project in the community category, and founding corporate sponsor Shell handed over a token prize of $2,500.
CPAWS reps from Yukon flew to Montreal for the June 4 gala, which was sponsored in part by the federal government.
The Three Rivers project is a Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society/Yukon Chapter art-based initiative that saw 37 artists and community members travelling down the waterways of the Peel Watershed in 2003.
Those weeks on the water inspired books, films, poetry, paintings and photography, all of which have been used to promote the Peel Watershed as a Canadian Shangri-La.
By being included in the environmental awards supplement in the June edition of Canadian Geographic, the award helps to bump up the national profile of the Bonnet Plume, Wind, and Snake rivers as the Peel Watershed Advisory Committee considers their fates.
“It certainly raises the profile of the Peel watershed nationally,” said senior planner Brian Johnston.
The planning process requires a balance of input between landholders and stakeholders in the region, though not all stakeholders necessarily live close by,” said Johnston.
“We’re obliged to consider the interests of all Canadians,” he said.
Although the Peel land-use planning process is at minimum a year and a half from completion, on May 17 the Yukon government opened regions within the Peel — specifically a parcel on the Peel River and others in Eagle Plains — to bidding for oil and gas projects.
The work bids are due June 27, but it’s not yet understood whether the acceptance of the bids will have an impact on the planning commission’s decision-making process.
CPAWS-Yukon’s strategy to keep oil and gas from the most critical ecosystems is to show the commission that ecotourism is not only an alternate means to extract an economy from the remote Peel region, but also that it is a smarter means.
“We have to really consider if those (oil and gas projects) are economically viable, let alone ecologically viable,” said CPAWS-Yukon spokesperson Theresa Gulliver.
“We’re not ever saying, ‘no development ever, anywhere in the Peel watershed.’ I don’t think we’d get very far if we did. But through this planning we hope it’s a conservation-based and conservation-oriented plan, one that considers conservation first,” she said.
CPAWS-Yukon’s primary goal in the watershed is to protect the full range of the Bonnet Plume caribou herd.
Even without the herd, the Peel is nationally significant and internationally prized as one of the largest remaining untouched tracts of a boreal wilderness.
Its remoteness poses a challenge already for viable oil, gas, and even coal-bed methane extraction.
Johnston acknowledges that, for the time being, much of the Peel basin is too inaccessible.
Heavy machinery for exploration purposes sometimes makes it in on winter roads, but not much else does.
However, small passenger planes and canoes are an entirely different matter.
“Tourism is an important sector of the economy in the Peel now, and will be in the future,” said Johnston.
When The Three Rivers initiative’s collection of slides, photography, music, poetry and film went on tour across Canada this spring, it began re-directing the wanderlust of thousands of Canadians northwards.
“People in Newfoundland, which is about as far away from the Yukon as you can get, had a tremendous response to the beauty of the Yukon,” recalls project co-ordinator and tour manager Juri Peepre.
More than 300 people showed up at the homecoming soiree of the Three Rivers Project in Whitehorse on May 17th, cramming into a sizeable ballroom at the High Country Inn.
“It was a fantastic evening,” said Gulliver.
“It was inspiring to see that there is such a strong level of support at a variety of levels for the work that we’re doing,” she said.
In addition to Gwich’in from Fort McPherson, and Nacho Nyak Dun members from Mayo, some politicians even made it out.
Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, who has been involved in the Peel since attending the Snake River homecoming party for the paddlers in 2003, was in attendance along with Yukon Tourism and Culture Minister Elaine Taylor.
Taylor was asked to comment on the Three Rivers homecoming event and the prospects of growth in Yukon ecotourism in coming years.
She refused to be interviewed about the event.
In the meantime, Gulliver has come to her own conclusion.
“I think the message is really getting across that this campaign is doing good for Yukon tourism — there’s no doubt,” she said.