The Peel Watershed Planning Commission has admitted it goofed.
A month ago, it announced the Snake River, the Blackstone River Uplands and the Turner Lake Wetlands should be protected, prohibiting all exploration and development on existing claims and leases in those areas.
But that was a mistake, the planning commission said in a news release issued Tuesday.
“It was never the intent of the commission to prohibit activities on existing claims and leases.” The plan will be revised accordingly.
When it learned of the changes, the Yukon Conservation Society got its hackles up.
“At first we thought, ‘Whoa, what’s going on? Is it meddling again?’” said society executive director Karen Baltgailis.
But the corrections made sense, she said.
“Basically, it just makes those three areas consistent with all the other areas the commission is recommending for protection. And I think we have to take the commission at their word when they say it was an honest mistake, which they’re now fixing as quickly as possible.”
The Yukon Chamber of Mines is not as generous.
“That this is something they only just caught, I find a little hard to believe,” said chamber president Carl Schulze. “I think they’re doing a bit of backpedalling.
“That document was just too well thought out for that to be an error. That being said, I’m glad they recognized it and are allowing exploration to continue. What they had to do was re-evaluate what they were saying and they realized they were overstepping their bounds too seriously on this one – they had to acknowledge that the claim holders do have rights that have to be honoured.”
If more mistakes start showing up, and the land-use plan keeps changing, Baltgailis is ready to take the commission to task.
“But I think, right now, we have to assume they’re dealing in good faith, and that they’re communicating with the First Nations and keeping them abreast of things so they don’t feel like they are surprised by this,” she said.
However, Na-cho Nyak Dun wasn’t informed of the changes. And on Tuesday afternoon its environmental officer, Jody Linklater, still hadn’t seen the news release. But he wasn’t surprised.
“We knew those sections had to be wrong,” he said, citing land claims experience. If development and exploration on existing claims were prohibited, then “all the claims we had trouble with during land claims would be null and void,” he said. “But those claims were grandfathered, even though our land got put on top of them.”
The changes to the land-use plan are “unfortunate,” added Linklater.
“We wanted to leave that area to the north pristine.”
The Tr’ondek Hwech’in is waiting for the consultations to begin before raising its concerns, said its lands and resources director Darren Taylor.
More than a year ago, the Yukon government admitted it didn’t have a policy to address compensation or expropriation for existing claims, said Baltgailis.
“So I think the commission was trying to work around that, and they don’t say what should be happening to any claims that are existing, except that there should be no road access, which is absolutely critical.”
Without road access, mining is next to impossible, said Schulze. Most claims in the Peel Watershed are only accessible by chopper, the cheapest of which is a Bell 206 that rents for $1,200 an hour.
Putting in airstrips is a possibility, but even getting the equipment in to build the landing strip is a problem.
“You’d have to sling it in by helicopter,” he said. “And if you’re bringing in two barrels of fuel, you end up burning another barrel just flying in there.”
The only glimmer of hope Schulze sees for future mining in the watershed are what he calls, “lead zeppelins.
“They’re talking about airships that might be able to lift 40 tonnes if they get developed in time.”
Any mining or even any landing strip developments would have to go through the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board.
And they’re in a “bad spot,” said Schulze.
It would be hard to evaluate applications because the proposed land-use plan may not happen – the government has to decide if it will accept, reject or modify it.
The assessment board should permit as usual until the rules are established, he said.
The conservation society doesn’t agree, stating the board should consider the plan when making its recommendations.
The society and Wilderness Tourism Association are troubled by the lack of a staking moratorium in the watershed.
“It’s a grey area if new claims become existing claims under the plan,” said Baltgailis. “Clearly the plan was written at a certain date, so this is part of the reason conservation organizations are calling for a moratorium on staking, because things are going to get very complicated if that doesn’t happen.”
Despite the thousands of claims staked just before the plan was finalized, Schulze doesn’t see much staking in the watershed’s future.
“The threat that these areas will become protected is pretty significant, so it’s a strong disincentive to work this area.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at