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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services building in Whitehorse on March 28, 2019. Three people who sat on Many Rivers’ board immediately before it closed for good say they were relieved to hear that the Yukon RCMP has undertaken a forensic audit into the now-defunct NGO’s financial affairs. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Former Many Rivers board members relieved to hear about forensic audit, wonder what took so long

Three people who sat on Many Rivers’ board immediately before it closed… Continue reading

Whitehorse General Hospital in Whitehorse on Feb. 14, 2019. The Yukon Employees’ Union and Yukon Hospital Corporation are at odds over whether there’s a critical staffing shortage at the territory’s hospitals. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
YEU, Yukon Hospital Corp. at odds over whether hospitals are understaffed

YEU says four nurses quit within 12 hours last week, a claim the YHC says is “inaccurate”

Two former Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates, Ray Hartling and Mark Lange, have filed a class action against the jail, corrections officials and Yukon government on behalf of everyone who’s been placed in two restrictive units over the past six years. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Class action filed against Whitehorse Correctional Centre over use of segregation

Two former Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates have filed a class action against… Continue reading


Wyatt’s World for Oct. 21, 2020

Movie poster for <em>Ìfé,</em> a movie being shown during OUT North Film Festival, which includes approximately 20 different films accessible online this year. (Submitted)
OUT North Film Festival moves to virtual format

In its ninth year, the artistic director said this year has a more diverse set of short and feature films

Triple J’s Canna Space in Whitehorse on April 17, 2019, opens their first container of product. Two years after Canada legalized the sale of cannabis, Yukon leads the country in per capita legal sales. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon leads Canadian cannabis sales two years after legalization

Private retailers still asking for changes that would allow online sales

A sign greets guests near the entrance of the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse on June 11. The city announced Oct. 16 it was moving into the next part of its phased reopening plan with spectator seating areas open at a reduced capacity to allow for physical distancing. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CGC reopening continues

Limited spectator seating now available

During Whitehorse city council’s Oct. 19 meeting, planning manager Mélodie Simard brought forward a recommendation that a proposed Official Community Plan amendment move forward that would designate a 56.3 hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend, currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
More development in Whistle Bend contemplated

OCP change would be the first of several steps to develop future area

EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse. Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting instead of 30 days to make up for lost time caused by COVID-19 in the spring. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Legislative assembly sitting extended

Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting. The extension… Continue reading

Today’s mailbox: Mad about MAD

Letters to the editor published Oct. 16, 2020

Most Read