Miners say Peel commission endorsed ‘quasi religious’ values

Documents obtained through access to information reveal an aggressive, behind-the-scenes campaign by miners to blunt the land-use planning process and keep the Peel Watershed open to development.

Documents obtained through access to information reveal an aggressive, behind-the-scenes campaign by miners to blunt the land-use planning process and keep the Peel Watershed open to development.

In a letter to the land-use planning commission dated June 11, 2009, Yukon Chamber of Mines president Carl Schulze said the commission “avoided a normal, science-based rationale and natural justice in favour of a quasi-religious basis.”

In its final draft several months later, the commission recommended protection of 80 per cent of the watershed on the basis of the region’s high wildlife and environmental values and First Nation heritage.

Schulze’s “quasi-religious” remark sparked anger in Jimmy Johnny, an elder of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun who met with media during a conservation-group sponsored trip to the Peel last week.

“To me, this place is more valuable to me than money and these guys, the only thing they talk about is money – money, money, money,” said Johnny, who has outfitted throughout the watershed for the last 50 years.

“They don’t care for nothing else.”

“They don’t care for the land, they don’t care how they disturb it, they don’t care how they pollute the water.”

The watershed is 68,000 square kilometres of virtually undisturbed wilderness in the Yukon’s northeast. Six major tributaries flow into the Peel River and the region is devoid of human settlement.

The five-year land-use plan for the Peel region has polarized miners and conservationists in recent years, but the clash is now entering the home stretch.

The commission’s recommended plan is being reviewed by the Yukon government and four First Nation governments. Public comment is also being sought until the governments make a decision in December.

The Chamber of Mines has opposed conservation in the Peel, suggesting “the great majority of the Peel Watershed should remain open to responsible exploration,” said Michael Wark, the chamber’s executive director, in a recent e-mail.

And it has been aggressively lobbying government officials behind the scenes for months, according to information recently obtained by the News through access to information.

In Schulze’s letter, values are described as an abstract concept that “cannot form the basis for objective land selection.”

He also fears conservation would turn the Peel into “playgrounds for wealthy tourists from ‘Outside’ (many from outside Canada).

“Protection would not be for “Yukoners, just for these privileged individuals and companies,” says the letter.

The commission also showed “favoritism” toward the wilderness tourism and outfitting industries by endorsing conservation, it says.

The commission, for its part, has defended its pro-conservation approach because it concluded land opened to development could not be returned to a pristine state valued by wilderness tourism operators, outfitters and First Nations.

The commission’s statement of intent said maintaining the sustainability of the watershed was key.

In a July 2, 2009, submission to the government, the chamber argued this unfairly biased the commission towards renewable industries.

Several months ago, the News submitted an access-to-information request for correspondence between the chamber of mines and government officials discussing the Peel Watershed. The government responded no such documents existed.

The News formally challenged that answer and, eventually, the government released more than a dozen letters and documents sent to public servants by the chamber.

The chamber’s commentary on the commission’s draft plan was e-mailed between bureaucrats on multiple occasions, the information request reveals.

There were multiple letters signed by “Joe Prospector” and “Josephine Prospector” sent by the chamber to the department, arguing mining would be irrevocably hurt by a pro-conservation land-use plan.

On December 17, the chamber sent a letter claiming the commission usurped the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, the territory’s main industrial project regulator, because it predetermines mining will have an adverse effect on the environment.

The chamber also attacked a poll done by Marsh Lake-based Datapath Systems, which found most Yukoners support protection in the Peel Watershed.

“Polls reflect the opinion of a populace at a specific moment,” says a January 27 letter. “Carefully phrased questions can create highly biased outcomes.”

In the same letter, the chamber accuses the commission of endorsing social and political considerations in its recommendation that uranium mining be banned from the Peel.

Finally, the chamber notified the government that it has begun an investigation into “the legal implications of this plan, if implemented as is,” says the letter.

The chamber is concerned about the expropriation of claims in the region should it be protected.

“Such claims could result in considerable cash compensation paid by Yukon territorial and/or federal governments to owners of existing mineral rights.”

There are just under 9,000 mineral claims in the Peel planning region as of December 2009, according to an e-mail from the government to the chamber.

The notion that pro-conservation groups stand on the side of “values” while the mining industry is science-based is repeated throughout the correspondence.

“I get kind of upset when I hear these guys are saying this because I truly believe mining exploration people in Whitehorse who are sitting in the office have never set foot in this area,” said Johnny.

“They don’t know what they’re talking about. But I do – I know what I’m talking about.”

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com

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