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North Yukon plan signed off

There are several important reasons why Yukon's first land-use plan, approved by governments on Monday, produced none of the controversy that surrounds planning for the Peel Watershed.

There are several important reasons why Yukon’s first land-use plan, approved by governments on Monday, produced none of the controversy that surrounds planning for the Peel Watershed.

The biggest is probably that the heavy lifting has already been done to restrict development in the North Yukon region, which, at 55,000 square kilometres, is about the size of Nova Scotia.

Almost one-half of this region is currently off-limits to development.

One-third of the region is protected, thanks to Vuntut National Park, the Ni’iinlii’njik Wilderness Preserve and the protected status of Old Crow Flats.

And a further 12 per cent of the region cannot be developed at Yukon’s North Coast, north of the Porcupine and west of the Bill rivers, because of Inuvialuit land claims.

Beyond what’s already protected, the plan identifies new areas to be preserved, such as the Whitefish and Bluefish-Cadzow wetlands and the Richardson Mountains.

By identifying these fragile areas, the plan should offer companies certainty by spelling out what level of development is appropriate, said Chief Joe Linklater of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

The plan should also help the Vuntut Gwitchin administer their own land, he said.

Land-use plans are products of the Umbrella Final Agreement, which became the template used to draft land claim deals with Yukon’s First Nations.

The North Yukon serves as an inventory of the region’s ecological resources and includes recommendations as to what level of development is appropriate.

But the plan does not outright forbid any activities, such as mining. And the document takes pains to state that it doesn’t override the existing laws of the Vuntut Gwitchin and territorial governments.

Only time will tell how closely the plan’s recommendations are followed. But the territorial government has shown it has no scruples with overriding the recommendations of Yukon’s environmental regulator, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, said Lewis Rifkind of the Yukon Conservation Society.

That makes him wonder if land-use plans will similarly be tossed aside when they prove inconvenient.

It also remains unclear exactly how the plan will be implemented. An implementation agreement has yet to be drawn up by the two governments.

Meetings are to be held on the matter in August, said John Spicer, director of policy and planning with the territory’s Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.

There’s admittedly far less potential for conflict between miners and conservationists in the North Yukon than in the Peel area because there’s little mining interest in the region.

Yet there’s believed to be 536 million barrels of oil and 7.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas beneath Eagle Plains.

What controversies do exist within the region are largely skirted by the plan’s limits. Old Crow’s garbage dump may be leaking nasty chemicals into the Yukon River, but that’s beyond the plan’s purview, because village land is excluded from it.

And planners considered whether an all-weather road should be built to Old Crow, but, based on opposition from village elders, they decided to oppose the construction of a permanent link to the Dempster Highway at this time.

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