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Mining, risk, and the ecology of perception

When we started mining we became human. This according to a geologist friend of mine. I don't know whether it's true or not, but it reveals that who we are and what we do changes the way we view the world.

When we started mining we became human.

This according to a geologist friend of mine.

I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it reveals that who we are and what we do changes the way we view the world.

It’s clear we see the world the way we want to see it, the way it serves us best from what we know about it.

So I’m not surprised by the Peel Watershed land-use planning debate.

The process has successfully gathered public and stakeholder input in the watershed. Most people want extensive protection because wilderness ecosystems are getting rare these days.

This one happens to be incredibly beautiful, supports sustainable industries, is a huge source of clean water and is the foundation of the food chain supporting the fish and mammals, which have been supporting at least one community downstream for countless generations.

Yet the scenario presented satisfies no one, and in the eyes of most, is skewed to one stakeholder’s interest: mineral development.

The mining community is the only stakeholder that does not want significant protection of the Peel.

As a result, recognizing 10,000 claims staked in the area since 2004, the planning commission has limited protection to just 11 per cent of the region, and is leaning toward access for mine development.

The commission has accepted the assertion the claims are legitimate and has suggested grandfathering access to any mineral development that might ensue.

Apparently, 10,000 claims staked during a four-year planning process (with just 2,000 staked in the previous 50 years) is purely coincidental, driven by market forces.

So why should the risk assumed by the companies who staked during a planning process be grandfathered into the plan.

If they are guaranteed access because of legitimate investment, how can other pre-existing investments, communities and relationships be compromised?

Many predate the four-year-old claims, in some cases by thousands of years. There are fish, plants, insects, porcupines, caribou, bears and other species who live there year round and depend on the region for seasonal migration. There are human communities that harvest food and drink the region’s water. And there are outfitting, adventure and wilderness tourism companies that operate in the outstanding region.

It is a conditioned view of the world that could compromise these values for a four-year-old mining claim.

Miners have said they deserve special consideration because their ventures are risky. It takes millions to prospect, perform assays and drilling programs and maintain offices in southern business centres.

These companies are looking for elusive minerals underground, and rarely in economically viable concentrations.

Fieldwork, science and sometimes just plain luck can result in a payoff. Or a loss.

But companies do not seem willing to accept the risk of staking and drilling during a land-use planning process.

However, they embarked on their aggressive staking efforts amid a well-publicized planning process to determine, through public input, how the land will be used.

It is amazing a company would take that risk, with its eyes wide open, with millions of investors’ money.

Did they tell investors the region was undergoing a planning process?

Is it because they safely assume that mineral interests supersede all other values?

You might expect, as a courtesy to all stakeholders, the companies would refrain from exploration until the process was complete.

Then, as good citizens, they would explore outside of sensitive areas.

Through the planning process, the public (in both settler and First Nation communities), government scientists and business owners have deemed the habitat valuable the way it is.

It is priceless to the creatures and plants living there, the communities, the industries it supports and the subsequent generations to whom it can have meaning.

This is where we get back to how our background, our vested interests, shape our view of the world.

Exploration company CEOs have said they see absolutely no reason why exploration should be suspended while planning is happening. Geologists have chuckled at some people’s concerns about the land because, thinking in geological terms (millennia), a mine here or there really doesn’t matter ... the land heals.

Yet if the community must think in terms of geological time, why the rush to stake a region in four years during a planning process?

Throughout the Peel planning process, exploration companies have been staking Ontario looking for the same minerals of interest here: uranium.

But there, locals were so outraged by the free-entry system and the prospect of uranium mining that they set up blockades and went on hunger strikes. To intimidate them, the Ontario government issued an injunction against blockades. This backfired because when the protesters did not budge, they were arrested and put in jail, creating a media sensation.

The arrests brought so much attention to our colonial-era mining laws that there is now demand to change the free-entry laws.

Here, free entry is an absolute industry right. When free entry is exercised without regard for all the other layers of meaning—relationship, investment and life on the land—I wonder if free entry will go the way of women’s lack of a right to vote, or racism, or other forms of disrespect for the values of others.

Biologists not under the yoke of government gag orders say as raw as the Peel Watershed it is, it is incredibly fragile.

And honest geologists admit things can go wrong, damaging the land.

But they did not see that as of great consequence in geological time, and times have changed.

There are now laws and bonding that protect the land and ensure cleanup. But mistakes still happen, and they are often impossible to repair.

Laws are only as strong as the political will to enforce them.

Premier Dennis Fentie once told me he values the ecological and cultural values in the Yukon’s lands, considers them exceptional on a global scale and trusts the planning processes and Yukon Environment and Socio-economic Assessment Act to ensure those values are conserved.

The recent intervention by government in the information the Environment Department provided the commission shows how political will is malleable by what vested interests want to see, not what they have to see.

A former president of another territory’s chamber of mines expressed bafflement that staking was allowed while a planning process was underway.

It is an obvious recipe for conflict.

But in parts of the Yukon government, we have a bias towards using the land for industrial development.

Industry tenaciously protects its right to free entry. Our view of the world is shaped by our vested interests, our conditioning.

I have asked many in the mining industry if any land value is so great that we should not mine there. And every one shifted very uncomfortably at the concept. It is an industry that has been on a quest since its inception, and ground left uncovered is like treasure left unclaimed.

We all live and benefit from this human behaviour. But we are in an age where the land, which supports so many other things of value to us, is in very short supply.

Which is why the public chose to protect the Peel. It is one special place we don’t want to mess up, even in geological time. Because there are many living things, communities and investments doing fine there, right now.

Mining is as much a part of being human as our first toolmaking in obsidian.

I support mining every time I open a can, drive a car or go to the hardware store.

But I don’t want my metal or my energy to come from the Peel.

And I do not want the public, the land or the life upon it to pay for the risk incurred by 10,000 claims made since an open, public, land-use planning process began.

The public should not have to guarantee access to four-year-old claims made during such a process, or compensate companies for the risk they took with eyes wide open.

Companies should shoulder the risks they incur, and let their investors know those risks while they are at it.

That former chamber of mines president said industry likes to know up front where sensitive areas are.

Industry is eager to play by the rules, but wants to know them before they invest.

The Yukon will exhibit a much more professional image to industry if it makes the rules clear before industrial activity is permitted in a planning region, as our neighbours to the east and west do.

And industry will display a great deal more community mindedness if it respects a planning process.

There are many places to mine in the Yukon.

There are not many where the ecological, cultural and sustainable industry values all intersect as they do in the Peel.

Marten Berkman is a freelance photographer and filmmaker who lives upstream from Whitehorse.