Peel plan struggles to find consensus

When it comes to plans for the Peel, nobody's happy. Miners and conservationists are both frustrated by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission's draft land use plan for the region, which is roughly the size of Scotland.

When it comes to plans for the Peel, nobody’s happy.

Miners and conservationists are both frustrated by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s draft land use plan for the region, which is roughly the size of Scotland. Both factions claim they didn’t get enough advance warning of the plan and now they’re voices aren’t being heard.

It’s beginning to sound a little stale.

The commission has held open houses, gathered scientific data and been available for five years. Now that its put forward something tangible to criticize, the miner-conservationist axis has turned on the commission itself.

The shift was evident at the commission’s open house meeting at the Westmark Hotel in downtown Whitehorse Monday evening. More than 100 people gathered in the ballroom to hear the plan’s details and to vent frustrations.

Again.

One miner claimed his industry didn’t know about the plan early enough, because most of the industry is based in Toronto and Vancouver.

Conservationists, who were hoping to put the kibosh on all development, claimed they are voiceless.

“They were saying, ‘You’re not listening to us,’” said commission member Dave Loeks. “At that level, my short answer is, ‘Yes, we did.”

“Don’t mistake not getting what you want for us not listening.”

Officially, both the Yukon Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association and the Chamber of Mines aren’t satisfied with the plan. Their complaints demonstrates their preferred roles as lobby groups rather than dealmakers, unwilling to build a sensible compromise.

“In the sense of two paradigms (regarding) a sense of place, Yukon has double-vision,” said Loeks. “It was mirrored right here in the audience.”

The plan currently protects nearly 60 per cent of the Peel Watershed and grandfathers all mineral claims within that section. Only three possible road access points are currently in the plan, something miners believe makes claim staking useless.

The problem is that free-entry staking undermines the entire principle of land-use planning.

“Whether or not they can be reconciled is very hard to say,” said Loeks. “I don’t think they can be reconciled through the regime of free staking with access on demand, because really what that’s saying is what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too, because it does undermine other values, roads do.”

“It’s naive to pretend otherwise.”

The old factions are having a hard time getting used to land planning, which espouses a collectivist approach to planning rather than top-down governance.

“We take our marching orders from the Umbrella Final agreement,” said Loeks. “And the premise there is to negotiate a way for First Nations and the rest of society to get on and co-manage things.”

People are still getting used to what all the listening adds up to.

“It’s one thing to listen; it’s another to listening substantively,” said Loeks.

The whole concept of a democratic and informed approach to resources and social values comes from the agreement, a document that Loeks calls “remarkable” in the “avenues it provides for change.”

“In the coming decades, we’re going to see these avenues grow and materialize,” he said.

“This is the entering wedge.”

Because the Peel land use plan is a clear manifestation of the political rights granted to First Nations in the agreement, there’s a resounding sense that the Yukon’s heritage as a mining capital won’t be same in the 21st century.

“We didn’t have a voice before and there was all kinds of development in that area,” said Joe Tetlichi, who is Tetlit Gwich’in. “We woke up one morning and there was exploration camps in our backyard because we didn’t have a voice.”

“Now we have a voice and we can see change.”

While the plan has ascended First Nations to a new level of decision-making, it remains merely a recommendation document, and business as usual is far from dead.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Tetlichi. “The government always gets the last say. It’s just a recommendation.”

Popular support has swung largely in favour of a heavily protected Peel with little development, if at all. The commission received hundreds of letters from Canada and the rest of the world expressing a deep affection and support for the vast and roadless Peel watershed.

But with the mining community looking increasingly like the minority, there’s fear it could lobby the Yukon government to ensure it doesn’t unduly limit free staking in the Peel.

“I don’t fear that (lobbying), I rather anticipate it,” said Loeks. “I imagine the other parties here will do the same thing.”

While the commission has proposed radical changes to the status quo, it remains beholden to the same old Yukon institutions most resistant to change.

“What this will test in many respects will be how the Yukon government and the First Nation governments are going to come to terms with whatever kind of horse trading is required to approve a plan,” said Loeks.

“It will be interesting to see how someone who, in principle, has the whip hand, because they’re the actual land managers, how in fact they bring in other people to share the influence and decision making,” he said.

It’s not up to the commission to decide how much influence the First Nation governments will have when the Yukon government will make its decision, said Loeks.

At the very least, the commission has succeeded in getting people involved, something that could prevent an unpopular decision by the government at the end of the day.

“The more the public is involved, the more light is shining on it,” said Loeks. “And the less you get it done in a darkened back room.”

For now, public consultations on the draft land use plan will continue until June 30. The commission hopes to have a final plan finished in the fall, and to begin implementing its recommendations next year.

It’s hoped that, by then, the old mentality of “My Peel, not your Peel” may give way to a compromise.

“Whether or not we succeed in writing a plan that elicits that kind of allegiance, we don’t know that yet because we’re only part way through the process,” said Loeks.

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com.

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