Before an oil and gas or tourism company can operate in the Yukon wilderness, they need government approval.
“The miner has the right of entry on lands that may contain minerals without getting a permit, without consulting the Crown, without telling the First Nations,” said Karen Baltgailis, the Yukon Conservation Society’s executive director.
Mining companies enjoy special treatment in their exploration activities because of the free-entry system or “free staking.”
A relic of Canada’s frontier past, it is preventing attempts to manage the economy and ecology in the Yukon’s wilderness.
Just look at the Peel River watershed.
The Peel River Watershed Planning Commission is charged with balancing the interests of miners, tourism companies and First Nations in the region.
But even in a portion of the watershed called the Three Rivers area, the mining industry is using free-staking to undermine the whole planning process.
“There’s been an increase in the (Three Rivers) region from 2,000 claims when the process started — when everyone was asking for a moratorium on free-staking — to 10,000” said Mike Dehn, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Yukon chapter.
When the Peel planning commission began, the Yukon government rejected calls for an interim moratorium on staking, stating that it would be business as usual, said Dehn.
“What we’ve seen is not business as usual,” he said. “It’s a tremendous increase in the number of claims. The process is starting to go awry and it makes land-use planning very difficult.”
Free-staking is a luxury the mining industry enjoys on top of being an economic favorite of the Yukon government.
“Mining has somehow always been considered the foundation of the Yukon’s economy,” said Baltgailis. “Every effort is made to encourage mining, even if it’s at the expense of other industries.”
Free-staking allows the mining industry to get an upper hand over other industries, compromising their ability to compete.
“A land-use plan comes up with zoning,” said Baltgailis. “And so the problem with free-staking is that it presupposes the planning before the land-use planning gets done.”
“Mining is the only industry where this occurs — that you can just go in and say ‘this is my area to develop,’” she said. “It doesn’t happen with oil and gas. It doesn’t happen with wilderness tourism.”
With an economic downturn around the corner, it makes little economic sense to concentrate so much on a fluctuating industry, said Baltgailis.
“Mining (investments in Canada) are projected to go down from $140 million to about $14 million in the next year or so. Tourism is also expected to be hit, but not nearly as much,” she said.
Last year, both conservationists narrowly blocked Cash Minerals from getting permission to expand exploration near the Wind River in the Peel River watershed — an experience which highlights the irrevocable harm free-staking can cause.
“There’s something really wrong with the system that allows a company like Cash Minerals to threaten a pristine wilderness, as they did last year, because they had uranium claims,” said Dehn.
“They wanted to open up a trail and build an airstrip in the wilderness,” he said. “They were able to make those claims and come very close to being able to do that, and a year later their company appears to have no activity and appears to be in a state of disarray.”
“They’ve closed their Vancouver office and their stocks are now worth pennies,” said Baltgailis.
Tourism companies have already complained about the Yukon’s pristine “image” being damaged by helicopters and exploration activity, said Dehn.
“We know that Yukon businesses were affected because they cancelled trips down the Wind River this summer on the assumption that there would be a lot of industrial activity,” said Dehn.
And First Nations are being left out of the deal as well, he said.
“We’re talking about people’s actual livelihoods.”
It isn’t mining per se, but mining exploration which produces this helter-skelter approach to land use.
Both Dehn and Baltgailis are adamant that they are not anti-mining.
Land-use planning balances competing industries in First Nation traditional land. The process came out of the Umbrella Final Agreement and other subsequent agreements.
Now Yukon’s reputation as a mining frontier and its newfound legacy as a forerunner in First Nation land use are clashing in the Peel River watershed.
With mining companies always getting a stake on land before land-use planners get a chance to zone it, conservationists assert the problem will persist as long as free-staking is permitted.
Free-staking undermines even the most basic planning, which could manage the competition between industries, such as tourism and mining.
“Good land-use planning would take care of that (competition),” said Baltgailis.
“There’s lots of wilderness in the Yukon with lots of places to mine. And there should still be a lot of wilderness that people can go to in solitude.”
Last week, the Royal Bank of Canada awarded the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society $100,000 to help protect the Three Rivers area.