Fentie targets the trees, infuriates First Nation

The government appears determined to push through its new Yukon Forest Resources Act in the next month, despite opposition from conservationists,…

The government appears determined to push through its new Yukon Forest Resources Act in the next month, despite opposition from conservationists, First Nations and opposition parties.

The bill would replace  forestry laws inherited from Ottawa, which largely date back to the 1960s. It received second reading in the legislature Thursday.

Brad Cathers, minister of Mines, Energy And Resources, shrugged off calls to delay passage of the bill until spring of 2009.

Concerns the bill is unduly vague will be addressed in the drafting of regulations, he said. To write changes into the law itself would be “foolish,” and result in the government having to go through long consultations in order to make simple changes to things such as forms, he said.

But one omission in the bill may lead to a nasty legal fight with a First Nation.

Liard First Nation, which claims 70 per cent of Yukon’s harvestable forest as its traditional territory, is steamed the bill does not appear to recognize its traditional land.

Traditional territory is defined in the act as what’s marked off in the Umbrella Final Agreement. But Liard never signed the Umbrella agreement.

And the bill makes no mention of First Nations with no final agreement, such as Liard.

This raises fears the territory may try to parcel up and log Liard’s territory before it has a final agreement.

The Yukon “disposes of resources in our lands at its own peril, and will be held accountable,” said the First Nation in a position paper.

It wouldn’t be the first time a court battle disrupted logging in the Yukon. Liard, as part of the Kaska family, helped bring logging in southeastern Yukon to a halt in the 1990s by filing court challenges against the federal government.

Since then, control over natural resources has been devolved to the Yukon.

Premier Dennis Fentie has rejected the First Nation’s objections its land is not recognized in the bill. “That’s not the case at all,” he said in the House on Wednesday. Aboriginal rights are “very much encompassed in the act,” he said.

Doug Van Bibber doesn’t buy it.

He has worked in forestry for more than 30 years. And he’s Tr’ondek Hwech’in, from Dawson City.

He was one of two-dozen members of the Yukon Conservation Society who showed up to the legislature on Wednesday to express their concerns about the act.

Van Bibber isn’t impressed with how the government is responding to First Nation concerns.

Their rebuttals don’t reflect the “government-to-government” relationship Fentie has repeatedly promised.

He remembers the long leadup to modern land-claim negotiations. And he remembers what First Nations gave up for land claims.

“The way I look at it, it’s like a rock that government keeps grinding away at. And that rock is your rights. What are you left with after a while?” he asked.

“A handful of sand.”

The bill is inclusive, argued Cathers.

For example, if First Nations agree to the act’s planning process, half of the planning committee members will be appointed by that First Nation, said Cathers.

The bill contains loopholes that may permit logging roads cutting across tracts of protected land, clearcutting and the export of raw logs, charge conservationists. A sign in the lobby of the legislature summed up their fears: “We want a forestry act, not a timber act.”

Stands of doghair pine may also be mowed down and mulched to feed a growing biofuel industry, warned Karen Baltgailis.

Opposition members raised many of these concerns when they tabled a total of 25 motions calling for different amendments to the bill.

All these concerns may be addressed in the regulations, as Cathers said.

But how much more responsive will the government be to proposed changes then? said Van Bibber.

He listened to Fentie answer question. All he heard was “fear mongering and avoiding questions,” he said.

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

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