Government digs a pit in the Peel

The Yukon government is ignoring public support for a heavily protected Peel Watershed, say conservationists.

The Yukon government is ignoring public support for a heavily protected Peel Watershed, say conservationists.

The government’s response to the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s proposals for the watershed leans toward calls for access roads and less protection.

That’s at odds with overwhelming public support for strong protection.

“It’s fair to say that it’s the responsibility of the government to hear and represent the views and the values of the people,” said Theresa Gulliver, who works for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Yukon Chapter.

“I think one can read the documents and get a good sense of where the interests lie. They’re not representative of what Yukoners are saying.”

While the Energy, Mines and Resources submission is understandably pro-mining, Gulliver is still surprised by the Environment Department’s soft-on-mining language.

“Mineral exploration and motorized recreation and wilderness tourism can, and have and will continue to coexist in the backcountry as compatible land uses,” reads the Environment Department’s four-page submission.

“That’s bold,” said Gulliver.

Most wilderness tourism companies will tell you that the Yukon’s selling point is its pristine image, something that is irrevocably lost when oil wells and open pit mines pepper the landscape.

The departmental letters provide technical advice about the Peel commission’s scenarios. There are three, ranging from pro-conservation to pro-development.

The government won’t prepare a more formal response until the Peel commission releases its first draft plan sometime this month.

But Gulliver sees a pattern to the government’s approach.

It wants more land access for miners than the compromise scenario No. 2 delivers.

“Are the Yukon government’s comments that came forward from all the departments on the Peel Commission scenarios truly representative of the views and the values of the Yukon public?” said Gulliver.

Energy, Mines and Resources submitted an 11-page opus, she noted.

“There has to be all-season access identified in the plan to enable certainty for exploration and development in the future,” is only one of many strong pro-mining comments in that department’s submission.

“There is nothing comparable to such a statement from Environment,” said Gulliver, suggesting that department could have adopted a more forceful tone.

“(Restricted winter road access) appears to ignore the resource assessment summary, which indicates highest mineral potential and activity in the southern part of the region,” reads another section.

“Roads and mines are not necessarily permanent fixtures on the landscape,” the department noted.

The government’s support for a mining-friendly Peel land-use plan doesn’t jive with recent public consultations.

The Peel commission just finished compiling 437 letters they received from the public over the last few months: 95.7 per cent of correspondence supports scenario two, which sets aside approximately 54 per cent of the Peel Watershed as a roadless, undeveloped wilderness.

And 75 per cent of respondents from the Peel commission’s town hall meetings in Mayo, Dawson and Fort McPherson also support scenario two, which protects the Hart, Bonnet Plume and Wind river watersheds, as well as the northern half of the Snake River.

“It’s apparent that there’s a strong showing of support from First Nations and by hundreds of Yukoners, including business people, to protect the natural and cultural values of the Peel Watershed and to support scenario two, which calls for protecting three to four watersheds,” said Gulliver.

Gulliver believes a trend toward mining has already established itself.

But scenario two cannot be reconciled with the government’s desire for more access roads, she said.

“With scenario two, we don’t think (the government) is (listening to the public),” she said. “(Scenario two) puts 54 per cent of (the Peel) as green and we’ve said, ‘Nope, we’re not going to have any access here. It’s alright to have it in the other 46 per cent, but not here.’”

The Environment Department is not reflecting that support in its submission to the commission, she said.

“None of (the submissions) mention the multitudes of values that Yukoners are speaking of and asking for: the healthy lands, the diversified economy, the clean waters, the healthy wildlife populations,” she said.

It comes down to different approaches to legislation, said Environment spokesperson Nancy Campbell.

“In Environment we have different things that we look at,” she said. “For example, we have different legislation than Energy, Mines and Resources. We have the waters act and they have the quartz mining act.”

“In the quartz mining act, it used to be ‘Go ahead and mine, people.’ And with the water act, we look at what you’re doing with water and whether you’re depositing anything in it.”

In essence, the mine department promotes mining, and the Environment Department mitigates environmental destruction.

“In Environment’s case, it’s a balancing act out there,” said Campbell.

“We are both a regulatory agency for the legislation that we’re responsible for and we’re also an advocate in that we encourage people to do good things for the environment.”

Environment and the Energy, Mines and Resources departments did not respond to questions about how they were incorporating public interest in their submissions by press time.

“I think there’s a strong need to question if the Yukon government in these comments is really representing the views and values of the Yukon public,” said Gulliver.

“This process has been going on for years and people have provided tons of comments,” she said. “It’s important to listen to what Yukoners are saying.”

Contact James Munson at jamesm@yukon-news.com.

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