Fentie interfered in Peel Watershed plan

Premier Dennis Fentie and one of his ministers interfered in the arm's-length Peel Watershed Land-Use Plan despite repeated claims cabinet would stay out of it, according to internal documents obtained by the Yukon News.

Premier Dennis Fentie and one of his ministers interfered in the arm’s-length Peel Watershed Land-Use Plan despite repeated claims cabinet would stay out of it, according to internal documents obtained by the Yukon News.

Pro-conservation advice intended for the planning commission was suppressed after Fentie made an “irate” call to a senior Environment official about a 22-page brief supporting ecological protection of the Peel.

The Peel should be protected, not mined, according to a shelved Environment document.

After Fentie’s call, Environment officials substantially watered down the department’s submission. A vague four-page document was submitted to the Peel Watershed Planning Commission instead.

The commission, which wanted detailed feedback from several government departments on its various land-use ideas in early spring, believed it was getting unfettered technical advice.

“We’re dismayed and we’re deeply disappointed that we haven’t gotten those views and we’d really appreciate receiving them,” said commissioner Dave Loeks.

“We find it very disquieting because we’ve been operating on good faith with the government,” he said.

The Environment Department houses some of the territory’s foremost experts on wildlife, water, and conservation. In their original document (obtained through an access to information request given to the paper) they laid out facts that directly contradict Fentie’s pro-mining approach.

“The Peel River Watershed is one of the last remaining pristine—yet still accessible—wilderness watersheds on the planet,” reads a deleted section from the fish and wildlife branch.

“The uniqueness of this region should not be understated.

“The long-term economic value derived from ecotourism, hunter-guiding, and outfitting, as well as the positive implications of strong conservation measures in one of the last remaining pristine wilderness refuges on Earth, could equal or surpass the resource extraction values associated with this landscape.

“The four First Nation governments have been very supportive of conservation as a priority in this planning process. The public as a whole also supports this priority.”

The department document also suggested the Peel commission wasn’t going far enough in its efforts to protect animal and plant life.

Denied this information, the commission has since wrapped up its departmental consultation. It produced a draft land-use plan heavily criticized by First Nations, conservationists and wilderness tourism operators as pro-development.

That’s the kind of Peel Watershed that Fentie wanted his government to support, government e-mails reveal.

“(Deputy Environment minister Kelvin Leary) just received an irate call from the premier, who was with (Energy, Mines and Resources) Minister (Brad) Cathers and he was quoting Environment’s response,” says a March 6 e-mail from Environment policy director Ed van Randen to John Spicer, Mines’ director of policy.

“This was a most uncomfortable and unexpected outcome.”

Fentie was never supposed to see the document, according to van Randen’s e-mails. Van Randen sent it to Spicer, who was co-ordinating the responses from different government branches.

The detailed 22-page report was sent to Spicer so the views of Environment and Energy, Mines and Resources could be consolidated and the government could speak with one voice.

After reading the document, consolidation is impossible, Spicer wrote Van Randen in a March 6 e-mail.

So he showed it to his superior, deputy minister Angus Robertson. Fentie and Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers received the document soon after.

“The government side will not interfere in (the Peel land-use process),” said Fentie in the legislature, six weeks after his call to Leary. “These mandated processes have risen from the Umbrella Final Agreement and our final agreements here in the territory.”

But Fentie had already meddled in the process.

“The commission is supposed to be arm’s length and without political interference,” said Rod Taylor, president of the Yukon Tourism Industry.

“Clearly the process is flawed,” said Taylor. “If the commission is making decisions based on missing information—that the most important department in the entire process has been unable to give because of a political line—that’s wrong.

“The process is flawed to the point where Yukoners’ best interests aren’t being protected and that’s wrong.”

The original Environment document gave detailed criticism of the Peel commission’s four scenarios and supported the commission’s scenario two, which protected three major watersheds within the Peel region.

And it also ripped the third and fourth scenarios apart for being created at the last minute after interventions from the mining industry.

Environment criticized the lack of wetlands protection on the Wind River and the incompatibility of mining-access roads with the management of the First Nations Porcupine caribou hunt.

It suggested north and east entry access points would be less environmentally detrimental than the south or west—making the prospects of resource extraction in the Peel more expensive.

It chastised the commission for making economic values more important than environmental interests.

This contradicted the view of Energy, Mines and Resources.

Environment should send in its own response, wrote Spicer, after Fentie had dressed down Leary.

Environment officials submitted the anemic four-page document, which was almost devoid of technical advice.

The Peel commission wanted something more honest.

“We never expected that the submissions would be a consolidated response because we understood at the outset that there are some widely diverging fields here,” said Loeks. “We don’t expect an economist to square their analysis with a conservation biologist. That’s up to the commission to do.

“We need to have some good solid technical information review and expert opinion from all quarters and we frankly don’t need to have it edited in advance. It appears that’s what happened here, if it went to four pages from a 22-pager.”

The commission’s current draft plan for the Peel is illegitimate, conservationists said after learning Fentie meddled in the process.

It’s a heavily redacted version of the commission’s scenario-two option, said Yukon Conservation Society executive director Karen Baltgailis.

Only 11 per cent of the Peel is protected. And the contentious Three Rivers region, where the mining and wilderness tourism industries have clashed for years, is theoretically open to development because all mining clams in the region will be grandfathered.

“People were asking how the draft plan could be so (pro-mining) and this is part of the explanation,” said Baltgailis.

“The commission never got the technical backing and support that the public wants to see.”

“It went from being a reasonable scenario with protection—as Environment has supported—to a draft plan where not even a single watershed is protected,” said Mike Dehn, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon chapter.

“We’ve been looking for a good plan,” said Dehn. “They’ve spent four years and millions of dollars on this and I’m surprised to see that the government has interfered at the political level.”

“Technical points made by experts in their fields should not be vetted through a political process.”

The Peel Land-Use Planning Commission is the second created in the Yukon. Created by the 1997 Umbrella Final Agreement, the commissions are supposed to bring First Nations and the Yukon government together to measure resource, cultural and wilderness interests across the territory.

“The commission is part of our agreements with First Nations as a society and to hear that the government is interfering in a way that would emasculate it is shocking,” said Dehn.

The political interference proves that the Peel land-use plan might be dead in the water, said Blaine Walden, vice-president of the Wilderness Tourism Association of the Yukon.

“The politicians have been meddling and interfering with the professionals who are hired for their expertise,” said Walden. “It’s showing that they are not arm’s-length and that they can’t make their own decisions.

“They don’t have that freedom.”

Fentie is hypocritical for claiming the commissions and the government departments have been free from interference this whole time, he said.

“How much should we invest our energy when the government already knows what it wants?” said Walden.

Na-cho Nyak Dun Chief Simon Mervyn was not available for comment by press time.

Fentie did not return calls. Spicer was also not available.

The deadline for public comment on the Peel is June 30th.

The full Environment submission on the Peel Watershed can be downloaded here (PDF 4.8 MB).

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com.

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