In defence of the Peel watershed

As a nature photographer living in the Yukon, I would like to say a few words in defence of the Peel River Watershed and the many animals that call it home. Attending last week's Peel Planning Commission presentation of...

As a nature photographer living in the Yukon, I would like to say a few words in defence of the Peel River Watershed and the many animals that call it home.

Attending last week’s Peel Planning Commission presentation of three different scenarios for the watershed, I was appalled to see the radically different directions the future of this strikingly beautiful watershed could face – from partial protection to sheer liquidation.

It has been my good fortune to have spent eight years living in remote areas of the bush, including 18 months in the Peel watershed. My background has contributed to my understanding of the issues.

Though I am a Canadian citizen, I am originally from Denmark, a small country in northern Europe. In fact, Denmark is only a tenth the size of our territory; but 5.4 million people live there. This may surprise those who associate the country with Danish pastries.

While I was visiting Denmark a few years ago, I heard a news broadcast the country’s Environment minister wanted to create areas in the country where no engine noise could be heard, places where people could experience silence – not so easy when such a relatively small landmass is crisscrossed by more than 72,000 kilometres of roads, almost enough to girdle the Earth twice.

When I was 13, growing up in a rural area of a densely populated country, I noticed somebody had been up to no good and pulled up my first survey stake, hurling it into a bog.

However well intended, I lost my singlehanded childhood battle against the mega-machine, and the meadows where I used to roam freely with my dog are today long buried beneath a four-lane highway.

At an early age, I realized that Denmark was not a place where I could feed my hunger for freedom and adventure. Fortunately, I’d chosen my parents with care and, when I turned 14, my dad told me that Canada was the country for me.

In the summer of ‘87 my partner and I packed our 17-foot Grumman over the Chilkoot trail and never looked back.

So here we are in the Yukon, a place with entirely reversed proportions – small population/big country – blessed with large, undisturbed wilderness virtually unchanged since time immemorial.

All the way up the food chain, the wildlife is here: healthy landscapes sustaining wide-ranging species such as caribou, grizzly bears and wolverines.

In the Yukon, we still have the opportunity to act with foresight, to make wise and visionary land use decisions for the benefit of the land and its wildlife, for ourselves and for generations to come – generations for whom we hold this territory in trust.

Learning from others and from our own bad experiences, we can prevent history from repeating itself. Yet it seems all could be lost.

Ten days in advance of the presentation at the Westmark Hotel, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission had publicized two mixed-use scenarios of which No. 2 offered substantially more protection than No. 1.

Scenario No. 2 needed much improvement, but was a beginning.

But on the day of the presentation, out pops No. 3.

I cannot consider scenario No. 3 anything but a death sentence over the watershed. It makes a complete mockery of the commission’s evaluation process. At this point, I will not take this scenario seriously. It proves that mistakes can always happen, even in a commission’s work.

Looking at the map of scenario No. 1, which would open up much of the region to industrial development, it is clear that the commission is in severe conflict with its “statement of intent.”

The goal of the Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan is “to ensure wilderness characteristics, wildlife and their habitats, cultural resources and waters are maintained over time while managing resource use,” including development of non-renewable resources.

The commission acknowledges scenario No. 1 offers limited protection of wide-ranging species, like grizzly bears, caribou and wolves.

Is caribou not the very species we are concerned about being able to sustain in Canada?

If infrastructure and human activity were to expand through the majority of the watershed, the pressure on the wildlife populations will inevitably have strong detrimental effects.

For all the 11 words are worth about “returning lands to their natural state as development activities are completed,” I have to ask: “Where in Canada have we seen that happen before on a big scale?”

In the future, we may have a generation of people who never have known a roadless Peel watershed.

Imagine telling them that it will no longer be possible to, for example, take your ATV up the Snake River valley when you want to go sheep hunting because all the access roads will be taken out so that the wilderness can be restored.

Henceforth a fly-in destination – imagine the outcry!

The planning commission may be well intended, but it has failed to apply the surefire test: Reality.

If we think the future for the Yukon lies in turning every stone, even in the furthest reaches of the territory, and squandering our wilderness heritage in the process, then we are only postponing the inevitable. One day we will run out of both.

When the last mine is shut down we will have to answer the questions: Where has it left us and what do we do now?

And what about the clean-up?

I doubt the Yukon economy is up to the challenge.

The Yukon Chamber of Mines’ uncompromising position in terms of access to the land reveals that greed has gone wild in the Yukon and is set to plunder our national treasure. Greed is one of the worst aspects of human behaviour because it is selfish, mindless and, knowing no borders, does not know when to stop.

It would be hypocritical of me to say that I’m against mining in the Yukon but, because of the industry’s total incompatibility with wilderness values, it is imperative that we have large areas where mining simply does not occur. The Yukon’s greatest attraction is our spectacular wilderness and it is also our most valuable long-term asset, providing many Yukoners with a sustainable living.

Areas like the Peel River Watershed deserve our full protection.

“The Earth, like the sun, like the air, belongs to everyone – and to no one.” E. Abbey.

Deadline for public comments on the scenarios for the future of the Peel watershed is February 28th.

Jannik Schou is a wilderness

photographer and environmentalist based in Whitehorse.