A proposal to build a network of 289 kilometres of winter roads in the Wind and Bonnet Plume watersheds is under review by the Yukon Environmental Socio-economic Assessment Board.
The largest stretch of winter road will be cleared along an existing trail, but branches will be built to support uranium exploration camps.
“Nothing was very clear,” said Blaine Walden.
The vice-president of the Wilderness Tourism Association also owns a canoe expedition company called Walden’s.
“The whole application was very vague without any details and a lot of assumptions,” he said.
For the past 17 years, Walden has been taking groups down the Wind River.
“It’s going to affect my business in a huge way,” he said.
“People are paying a lot of money to get into an area with the expectation of a true wilderness experience.”
There are as many as eight other expedition companies that advertise trips down the Wind River, said Walden.
Including the recreational canoeists that paddle the remote region, roughly 30 groups travel the river each year.
Like Walden, many are concerned that the road will be visible from the river and also effect wildlife viewing.
There has already been a decrease in wildlife due to increased air traffic to nearby exploration sites, said Walden.
And a newly cleared road could provide a corridor, making travel easier for predators, such as wolves.
“That’s a big concern for outfitters in the area as well,” said Walden.
Cash Minerals plans to clear its winter road down the Wind River Trail.
“That trail was built without a permit in the 1950s,” said Yukon Conservation Society executive director Karen Baltgailis.
“It hasn’t been used since then and most of it would be starting to regrow — it is not an existing road.”
An additional 39 kilometres of new spur roads will be built off of this trail.
The Wind River is part of the internationally renowned Peel River watershed.
The nearby Bonnet Plume River, which also runs to the Peel, is designated a Canadian heritage river.
A land-use planning review is currently underway for the area and should be completed within a year or so.
“We feel that there shouldn’t be major industrial initiatives done in the area until that planning gets done,” said Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society president Mike Dehn.
“We want to see more protection of the Peel watershed — this is the thin edge of the wedge.”
Allowing Cash Minerals to open up the road for exploration would make it easier for other companies to do the same, said Dehn.
“If the road goes in it’ll dramatically change the character of the wilderness.”
Cash has been exploring the region for the past four years, accessing its claims by air.
The proposed road provides a cheaper alternative to truck in fuel and other supplies.
“It doesn’t really inspire a lot of confidence,” said Baltgailis.
“If they can’t afford to conduct business the way they have been, how are they going to be able to pay for a cleanup?”
The deadline for public comment on the review is Tuesday.
However, several groups are requesting an extension, including the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun.
“This could have serious environmental and socio-economic implications,” said Dehn.
“You can’t really respond to this proposal with enough detail to be persuasive in the amount of time that we have.”
The Tetlit Gwich’in Council has also expressed concern over the proposal, asking for tighter environmental scrutiny.
“To proceed without a land-use plan to abide by is not ethical,” wrote Chief Wilbert Firth in a comment to the Yukon Environmental Socio-economic Assessment Board.
The road isn’t the only concern for environmental groups.
Cash Minerals is exploring for uranium.
“The Yukon Conservation Society has major concerns about uranium mining,” Baltgailis.
“There’s been an increase in uranium mining lately and it’s a conversation that Yukoners need to have.”
Nova Scotia and British Columbia both have moratoriums on uranium mining, said Baltgailis.
“But for now the road is the immediate concern.”
The proposal and comments can be found on the Yukon Environmental Socio-economic Assessment Board website under the project title: Wernecke Winter Road Access Project.
As of this morning, 33 comments have been submitted.
Many of those comments are questions and requests for clarifications on the 50-page proposal.
These questions were formally submitted to Cash Minerals November 16, and have not yet been addressed.
“It’s not fair to the company either,” said Baltgailis.
“How do they expect the company to respond that quickly? What are we supposed to do with those answers if we receive them the day of the deadline?
“There has to be an extension.”