First Nations announce Peel lawsuit

First Nations will sue the Yukon government over its handling of the Peel plan. Thomas Berger, a famed expert in Canadian aboriginal law, will lead the suit, the First Nations announced Friday.

First Nations will sue the Yukon government over its handling of the Peel plan.

Thomas Berger, a famed expert in Canadian aboriginal law, will lead the suit, the First Nations announced Friday.

Berger will join First Nation chiefs Ed Champion and Eddie Taylor for an announcement Monday in Vancouver.

The event coincides with the Mineral Exploration Roundup conference, where the Yukon government will be trumpeting the territory’s mining potential to companies from around the world.

First Nations are in good company in their opposition to the plan released by the government this week.

Miners and conservationists have found a rare moment of agreement in their shared displeasure over the new plan.

Even the wilderness tourism operators, for whom the government invented a new kind of park, are not pleased.

The purpose of land-use planning is to give all users certainty about what sorts of activities will and will not be allowed in an area.

The Peel planning commission’s recommended plan, supported by affected First Nations, conservationists and tourism industry groups, would have banned new staking and road building in 80 per cent of the region.

But the Yukon government, with its new Peel plan unveiled this week, has chosen instead to shy away from hard rules.

While no new staking is allowed in the 29 per cent covered by protected areas, mining is potentially allowed across the watershed, if developers can meet certain standards for preserving the region’s wilderness character.

That uncertainty about what, exactly, will be allowed has both miners and environmentalists worried.


The devil is in the details’

“The devil is in the details of this document,” said Samson Hartland, executive director of the Yukon Chamber of mines. “It’s very complex.”

The chamber is happy to see that the government modified the recommended plan in favour of more development, he said.

But miners are worried about all the extra layers of protection that this new document adds for prospectors across much of the watershed, he said.

“When you combine all that, all the different varying layers of permitting and regulations, it becomes extremely complex and uneconomic for a number of projects.”

Access is a big issue, said Hartland.

He mentioned special rules that will require seasonal roads where possible, ban road building for exploration work and require annual cleanups as examples.

And when it comes to flying in, there will be special rules about flying over sheep habitat during spring lambing season and flying over rivers during summer tourist season, he said.

It’s worth noting that both of those time-frames overlap with Yukon’s relatively short exploration season.

“From our perspective it’s a very high level of protection.”

Conservation groups are not so sure.


‘No real protection’

“There’s no real protection at all in the Yukon government’s plan,” said Karen Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society.

“I have no faith in this business of trying to co-ordinate air flights so that tourism isn’t disturbed, and things like that. It is so loosey-goosey. It just would not be effective.”

Roads are not banned anywhere in the watershed.

In most of the region, roads would only be allowed for mine development, not exploration. They would have to be closed to the public, and temporary. That means that after the mine is closed, the road must be reclaimed by nature.

But those rules don’t give Baltgailis any comfort, she said.

“There’s really no such thing as a temporary all-season road.”

Once a road is built, it makes it cheaper for neighbouring companies to go in and develop their claims, she said.

“The chances of an all-season road developed for one mine ever getting shut down are really remote.”


Mines and wilderness incompatible?

The biggest area of contention for both miners and conservationists are the government’s new Restricted Use Wilderness Areas.

The government says that these areas will retain their wilderness character even as some development is allowed.

This land-use category covers 44 per cent of the watershed. It’s painted light green on Yukon government’s maps and fills the spaces between the protected river corridors.

New mineral staking is allowed, but oil and gas exploration is not.

Roads can be built, but only under strict conditions.

The surface disturbance, or development footprint, is limited to 0.2 per cent of the total area.

The government says this means that 99.8 per cent of these areas will stay pristine.

But those numbers are not firm limits.

“The recommended indicator levels are not intended to be an absolute cap on activities,” according to the plan document.

Conservationists say you can do a lot of damage with 0.2 per cent of the land.

A 2008 report prepared by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission estimates that 0.1 per cent of the watershed has already been disturbed by human activity, although about 20 per cent of that has likely already been reclaimed by nature.

Reclamation is defined as when trees and shrubs reach 1.5 metres in height, or the same height as surrounding vegetation.

There are 8,996 active quartz and mica claims in the watershed.

“The Peel region has been the site of numerous major exploration programs and has remained one of the world’s premier pristine areas,” said Hartland. “Which, we believe, is a testament to the way in which modern mineral exploration practices respect the environment.”


A megamine for the Peel?

No one is rushing to develop the Peel soon. There are no late-stage exploration projects in the region.

Mineral prices and exploration spending are down.

But if conditions were to change, how much development would Yukon’s Peel plan allow?

The allowable surface disturbance in the watershed ranges from 0.2 per cent in low-development areas to one per cent in high-development areas.

Ironically, the land management block that would support the most total surface disturbance under the government’s plan is a Restricted Use Wilderness Area.

At 0.2 per cent of the total area, the land management unit comprising the Wind and Bonnet Plume watersheds would support a maximum surface disturbance of 32 square kilometres.

Under the government’s plan, that’s the only area that would support a project comparable to the Faro mine, which has a footprint of 25 square kilometres, or the proposed Casino mine, at 23.5 square kilometres.

These maximum footprint rules would likely rule out most major mine development projects, which have to be big enough to pay for the infrastructure needed to get to the mine in addition to that needed for the mine itself.

The plan in all likelihood rules out development of the giant Crest iron ore deposit, hailed by Premier Darrell Pasloski in his most recent budget speech as a potential driver of Yukon’s future economy. Just 15 per cent of the estimated deposit would yield 1.68 billion tonnes of ore, worth $139.7 billion, he said.

The deposit is located in a Restricted Use Wilderness Area with a footprint threshold of about 14 square kilometres, a little more than half a Faro mine.

Of course, the question may be irrelevant, since that site is nowhere near development, and the plan is up for review in 10 years or when the parties agree to review it.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at