Mining road review skirts public critique

The broader Yukon public wasn't asked for its thoughts on the future of mining roads in the territory.

The broader Yukon public wasn’t asked for its thoughts on the future of mining roads in the territory.

“It was targeted consultation,” said Allan Nixon, assistant deputy minister of transportation for Highways and Public Works. “We went out to the communities, First Nations, industry associations – people that we’ve been dealing with for the last couple years on this process, so it wasn’t a full-scale public consultation and it was never intended to be.”

Yukoners aware of the consultation had until September 14 to give their opinions on the management of roads that lead to exploration and industrial activity in the territory’s backcountry.

The six-page framework doesn’t really discuss new roads. Instead, it focuses on that “grey area” of existing access roads that aren’t officially maintained but still used, mostly by industry and First Nations, said Nixon.

The issue first came up about three years ago, when a mining company informed a Yukon community that the territory was going to revamp and maintain the road leading to their site.

The First Nation became “quite upset,” because they hadn’t been consulted, said Nixon.

It brought its concerns to Highways. That was the first time the department had heard about the plans, he said.

This framework will help clarify the government’s role in such disputes.

“Government can’t be all and end all for everybody,” said Nixon. “If you look at the history of the Yukon, when there wasn’t anything going on here – and that wasn’t that long ago – whenever there was a proposal, government would probably be running to the forefront to do whatever it took to get that development up and running, and if that included roadwork, so be it. But with the amount of stuff that’s going on now, we just can’t support that and look after all the roads we have to maintain now.”

Industry can’t assume that government will “take care” of everything from environmental assessments to First Nation consultation just because the Quartz Mining Act allows road access to any claims staked by a miner who “follows due process,” said Nixon.

“You need to share the costs,” he said.

This framework is also an effort to correct the history of “too many one-off” decisions to build mining roads. Such work usually follows the boom and bust of the industry, said Nixon.

“The idea behind the framework is to provide some clarity, to everyone involved, that says if government’s going to be involved, this is how,” he said. “It’s putting some responsibility back on industry. It’s not all government. And it also recognizes that we probably, over the years, haven’t done a great job on developments where there’s a community impact, from a traffic perspective.”

Issues with communities and First Nations should be dealt with up front, not after roadwork has already been done and the increased traffic is creating complaints, he said.

But the Yukon’s NDP Opposition isn’t convinced this framework equally considers the rights and needs of remote communities and First Nations.

“This gives priority to oil and gas and mineral extraction over other industries, including agriculture, trapping, outfitting, forestry and wilderness tourism and traditional First Nations use,” said Lois Moorcroft, the NDP’s critic of Highways and Public Works in a submission for the consultation.

The framework is weak on environmental protection, doesn’t give enough attention to the government’s legal obligations to involve First Nations in land-use and resource-development policies, and it gives an insufficient role for the public to participate, Moorcroft wrote.

She also raised concerns about too much power being placed in the hands of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.

But the issuance of land-use permits and access roads has always been that department’s responsibility, said Nixon.

The framework won’t change the role played by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, he added.

Industry will also need to show the “return” for government before the territory decides to help out with any roadways, he said.

But any money used for industry’s roads is diverted from spending on things like health and social wellbeing, said Moorcroft.

The Yukon Conservation Society wants more detail, like who has to pay for what, according to its submission.

But those details come after the framework is established, said Nixon.

The society also wants to see more consideration to access that isn’t overland, like helicopter and maybe even airship traffic.

They also want to see more public participation in these future decisions.

The NDP wants the territory to focus on land-use planning – a legal obligation it holds with First Nations that will ultimately affect things like road networks across the territory.

The timeline to get this framework done is tight, said Nixon. Every week there’s another demand put on the territory’s highway system, he said. The plan is to have the framework finalized by the end of this year.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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