Outfitters surprised by cabin controversy

Today is the deadline for Bonnet Plume Outfitters to prove it had authorization to build a lodge and several cabins on the Bonnet Plume River.

Today is the deadline for Bonnet Plume Outfitters to prove it had authorization to build a lodge and several cabins on the Bonnet Plume River.

And the company is breaking its silence.

“We thought we went through the proper channels to build the cook cabin,” said Bonnet Plume Outfitters co-owner Sharron McKinnon in a letter submitted to The News.

“We consulted with the lands branch; we talked to YESAB and we talked to other outfitters. We went through the only process available to us,” she said.

“We did not realize that a 768-square foot cook cabin would cause such an uproar. This situation has brought a great deal of stress on our family and crew.”

The buildings McKinnon and her husband Chris erected on the bank of the Bonnet Plume River in 2005 have provoked criticism about the government’s outfitting land application policy.

Several outfitters are confused about the application process required to build cabins, while the Opposition Liberals charge the new rules place too much power in the hands of the government to dole out land to outfitters.

The McKinnons erected the buildings about 160 kilometres northeast of Mayo, close to the Bonnet Plume River.

And the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, whose traditional territory the structures sit on, has asked the Yukon lands branch to have them removed.

Fronteer Development, a Vancouver-based mining company that has a mineral claim near the cabins, has also taken issue with the outfitter’s Bonnet Plume buildings.

Ore samples once neatly organized at Fronteer’s site were destroyed after the cabin went up, said Fronteer vice-president Rick Valenta in a previous interview.

“Almost all the core had been dumped on the ground,” said Valenta, who noted retrieving more core samples would cost about $6 million.

Since the legislature reconvened in November, Liberal Eric Fairclough has pushed the Yukon Party government to have the Bonnet Plume cabins razed.

On November 30, Premier Dennis Fentie announced the company had until December 15 to provide documented proof of authorization to build the cabins.

If none arrives by today, Fentie has pledged the Yukon judiciary will seek a court order to remove the buildings.

Two weeks ago, in an interview with CBC Radio, McKinnon said she received “verbal permission” to build the cabins.

The McKinnons aren’t the only outfitters that built a cabin under the impression the rules were being followed.

Tim Mervyn, owner of Mervyn’s Yukon Outfitting and the former president of the Yukon Outfitting Association, recently built a small cabin on the trapping concession of Fred Brown Sr.

Last week, Brown Sr. came to the legislature to express his concern about Mervyn’s cabin.

“The government said we’d be protected” from fire and from people moving in, said Brown Sr. “So where are they now?”

But Mervyn is adamant he followed the rules as much as possible to build.

“The thing is, there has been no system to apply for those cabins,” he said. “Lands branch has refused to accept applications. I’ve got applications, and this is one of them, that go back to 1986.

“This has already gone through public consultation 10 years ago.”

Outfitters have been in the Yukon for more than 100 years and have been encouraged by the government to build cabins, said Mervyn.

“It’s not until this fall that it seems to have become an issue, and I’m not really sure quite why,” he said. “I know about recreational properties out in the concessions that guys are getting title to.”

The policy at the centre of the debacle is the big game outfitting land application policy.

In its final clause, the policy states outfitter applications for land will be reviewed “as required” by the Yukon Environment and Socio-Economic Assessment Act.

Fentie is adamant all applications trigger a YESSA review, which includes public input.

Fairclough isn’t so sure.

The policy has been changed from an October 2005 version, which had applications reviewed by the Land Application Review Committee.

That committee disappeared, replaced by YESSA.

Reviews are no longer automatic following the changes, said Fairclough.

“‘As required’ doesn’t mean an automatic trigger. The big thing in this is if you applied for land under LARC, you had to put together a plan and it required public input,” he said.

The single application currently under the new policy is from Lone Wolf Outfitting, which hopes to build several buildings near Big Salmon River.

Lone Wolf’s application doesn’t trigger a YESSA review, said Fairclough.

And if a review happens, and an application is turned down, an outfitter can still ask for an appeal, he said.

In such a scenario, the final decision for the application falls on the desk of Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Archie Lang, said Fairclough.

“The minister basically has final say. There’s a big difference there” compared to the original policy, he said.

Lang has deferred questions on the policy to Fentie, as he owns an outfitting business and is avoiding a potential conflict of interest.

Lands branch officials were contacted for comment, but didn’t return phone calls.

With files from Graeme McElheran