More protection for caribou, wetlands, says first major land use plan

Four years and $1 million later, the first major land-use plan mandated under the Umbrella Final Agreement is out in draft form.

Four years and $1 million later, the first major land-use plan mandated under the Umbrella Final Agreement is out in draft form.

The plan covers 56,000 square kilometres, or about 12 per cent of northern Yukon.

More a guideline than a legally binding document, the North Yukon Land Use Plan sets thresholds for industrial activity, criteria for wildlife protection and defines — in this case, increases — protected habitat.

The plan provides certainty for tourism, industry and conservation and provides security for the health and well-being of the people of Old Crow, said Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Joe Linklater.

“What we’re saying as a government — and we agree with this plan — is these are areas we won’t touch and these are areas you can develop,” said Linklater.

“It says, ‘This is how things are going to work.’ It takes a big chunk out of the normal guesswork.”

The draft is focused on several areas, including oil and gas exploration, land management with emphasis on the Porcupine caribou herd, transportation and climate change.

Input from governments, conservation groups and industry lobbies was taken into account.

The plan was drafted with the view that sustainable, integrated development can be obtained by setting out economic, social and ecological goals.

Thresholds for how much development and habitat disturbance can occur in a given area — depending on how ecologically sensitive it is — are identified in the plan.

The commission recommends increasing the protected habitat by one per cent, or about 470 square kilometres.

About 32 per cent of land in the planning region is under long-term protection, and the draft targets the central Whitefish Wetlands outside of Old Crow Flats for more protection.

The wetlands include some of the most ecologically sensitive sites in the region.

The six-member planning commission is reviewing about 20 public comments and will revise the draft where necessary before formally submitting the plan to the territorial government and the Vuntut Gwitchin.

“It’s a balanced plan that accommodates conservation and development interests,” said Shawn Francis, senior land-use planner with the commission.

The plan will complement existing regulatory processes and will make it easier for specific sectors to tailor development projects in the region, according to the commission.

“The plan focuses on establishing flexible prescriptive, or non-prescriptive, statements,” said Francis.

“It’s not up to the commission to decide what land use occurs in an area — that’s for the regulatory regime to sort out — but the commission can guide what we want the landscape to be like.”

Legislated processes, like the Yukon Environment and Socio-economic Assessment Board review, will use the plan as a guideline in its decisions, added Francis.

The North Yukon Regional Planning Commission released the draft in November and public comments were accepted until January 15.

Two documents, a 361-page full report and a 36-page summary, are available on the commission’s website at www.nypc.planyukon.ca.

Seven more plans are scheduled for the territory, one of which is being drafted.

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission is working on a land-use plan for northeast Yukon and is expected to finish late this year.

The plans are mandated under Chapter 11 in the Umbrella Final Agreement and individual First Nation final agreements.

The territory and First Nation governments appoint members to the commissions.

“This is not just a plan of the Vuntut Gwitchin or YTG,” said Linklater.

“This was independent and representative of all Yukon people.”

There are no major criticisms from the Vuntut Gwitchin, just some fine-tuning of threshold numbers and technical questions, said Linklater.

The planning region includes Eagle Plains, which has potential for oil and gas development, and borders the Peel Watershed.

The Yukon government owns about 78 per cent of the land, the Vuntut Gwitchin own 14 per cent and Ottawa holds the remaining eight per cent.

Old Crow, with a population of about 300, is the only permanent community in the area.

A large chunk of the plan deals with the Porcupine caribou herd.

The commission recommends increased conservation and protection of areas frequently travelled by caribou.

Access lines and winter roads could lead to increased predator success and hunting in previously inaccessible areas, said Francis.

The Porcupine caribou herd remains the most important wildlife resource in northern Yukon and is a vital cultural and economic resource for the locals, says the draft plan.

Caribou rutting and winter seasons overlap the usual oil-and-gas exploration season, making it inevitable the exploration will occur when the herd is on its winter range.

“The plan goes a long way towards comprehensive protection of the herd,” said Linklater.

The plan discourages all-season infrastructure development in wetlands, and the construction of permanent river crossing structures and all-season roads through major river corridors.

The commission made no specific recommendations for mineral resources and oil-and-gas activity, and deferred specific non-renewable resource studies to assessment boards and other processes.

“(But) in advance of significant levels of energy-sector activity, an access management plan should be developed for the Eagle Plains oil-and-gas basin,” says the plan.

Interest in oil and gas exploration is low, but increasing. Eagle Plains basin is considered one of the most important areas for resource development.

Current estimates peg natural gas potential at about 7.9 trillion cubic feet.

The oil-and-gas branch of Energy, Mines and Resources last year doled out 13 new exploration permits for the area.

Minerals in the area remain relatively unexplored. About three per cent of the region — mostly in the west — is considered to have a high concentration of minerals.

The plan also allows for protection of paleontological and archeological sites such as graves, cabins and old travel routes.

Climate change impacts should be considered in all land management decisions, especially with regards to the Porcupine caribou herd, says the plan.

The commission concluded an all-season access road to Old Crow is not needed yet.

“If there ever was an all-season road, the economics, the environment of the region would change drastically,” said Linklater.

“It’s an entire issue on its own. It’s beyond comprehension right now.”

Building an all-season access road would cost up to $5,000 per kilometre for 180 to 200 kilometres, said Francis.

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