Peel planners stick to their guns

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission's work is done. Its final recommendations, released Monday, stick with earlier plans to protect four-fifths of the vast, Scotland-sized swath of northeast Yukon.

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s work is done.

Its final recommendations, released Monday, stick with earlier plans to protect four-fifths of the vast, Scotland-sized swath of northeast Yukon.

In doing so, the planners resisted the Yukon government’s pressure to create a plan more conducive to mining in the area.

The commission did adopt many minor recommendations by government. The new plan is less complicated and easier to read.

And not all protected areas are off-limits to mining forever.

Slightly more than half of the region would be permanently off-limits for development. Another quarter would be protected for the next decade, until a future review takes place.

“Think of that as having 10-year protection windows,” said David Loeks, chair of the commission. “You want flexibility? There’s flexibility.”

But, crucially, the plan would permanently protect the so-called Three Rivers region, which is at the heart of a pitched battle being fought between miners and conservationists.

The Snake, the Bonnet Plume and the Wind are favourite destinations for wilderness paddlers and mineral exploration companies alike.

Uranium deposits have been discovered along the Wind. There are coal seams along the Bonnet Plume. And Chevron owns the massive Crest iron deposit along the Snake.

Companies with existing claims would be allowed to develop. But no roads or railways would be permitted into these areas. That’s sure to rankle miners.

Roads would be permitted elsewhere in the region. That’s a compromise, as the earlier draft didn’t allow them to be built at all.

But any new road would be temporary, and a company would need to post a big enough bond to cover the cost of restoring the landscape in the future.

The territorial government had warned earlier that a plan leaning too far towards conservation could set a dangerous precedent for later land-use plans to be developed.

Nonsense, said Loeks.

“It’s not alike to British common law,” he said. “That’s just not so.”

Instead, the Peel is a special place, like nowhere else in the Yukon. Its plan ought to be special too, said Loeks.

There’s only one road, the Dempster Highway, that runs through the region. Much of the land is remote wilderness. The plan would, by and large, keep it that way.

The big question now is what the territorial government intends to do. Mines Minister Patrick Rouble says they’re still studying the document. “It’s way too early to say,” he said.

The territory objected that the draft plan didn’t allow enough mining. Not that it ever said it that plainly – Rouble has always resorted to using “balance” as code for greater development.

But the territory never spelled-out which areas it wants open for industry, or why.

Loeks took this to mean the territory wanted the commission to “head back to the drawing board” and start fresh. But he didn’t have time or resources to do that.

And Loeks doesn’t see the need. “We more or less got it right the first time,” he said.

It’s always possible to build a mine later. It’s not so easy to restore wilderness to an area that’s already been developed.

For that reason, Loeks took what he calls a “cautious, conservative approach.”

An earlier version of the plan tried to find middle ground between miners and conservationists. It ended up pleasing nobody.

“We really couldn’t be all things to all people,” said Loeks. “You can’t please two mutually contradictory interest groups.”

Now it’s up to the Yukon government and four affected First Nations to see whether they can agree on the plan, or some modification of it.

That won’t be easy. While the government has called for more mining, all First Nations want to see the entire watershed protected.

The parties have agreed to an ambitious timeline that would see a final deal signed by November. Community meetings are to be held up until then.

Conservationists and opposition parties have all thrown their support behind the final plan.

In a release, Mike Dehn, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, called the plan “a tough compromise, but one that we can live with.”

“No one got everything they wanted, but we can accept the trade-offs this plan represents,” added Karen Baltgailis of the Yukon Conservation Society.

Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell also lauded the plan. “It’s a good, well-thought-out, balanced proposal,” he said.

Mitchell called on the Yukon Party to clarify its own position. “What’s the current government planning on doing, other than stalling?” he asked. “It looks like it hasn’t really changed. ‘Let’s just punt this ahead of the election.’”

Rather than obstruct the Peel plan, the territory should focus on trying to cash-in on the current mining boom, by ensuring that local workers are employed, said Mitchell.

And it needs to build more housing, so that newcomers to the territory have a place to stay. “We have a huge problem because we’ve allowed this boom to happen without planning,” said Mitchell.

NDP Leader Liz Hanson also challenged Rouble to “come out clearly and offer a statement of what his position is.” She wants to ensure the region is protected for future generations.

The territorial government’s handling of the creation of the Peel’s regional land-use plan faced criticism from the start, when it ignored the commission’s request in 2004 to ban the staking of new claims in the region.

Predictably, prospectors rushed in. Claims in the region jumped from 2,071 in 2004 to 10,666 in 2008. The government finally imposed a staking ban in February of 2010.

More skepticism was raised over the government’s intentions to preserve the Peel when it became known in the summer of 2009 that then-Premier Dennis Fentie had prevented pro-conservation proposals being submitted to the commission by the territory’s Department of Environment.

Before he won the race to become the Yukon Party’s new leader, Premier Darrell Pasloski urged his party faithful to not let the Peel become a major election issue this autumn. But it’s hard to see how they will avoid that.

The fate of the Peel Watershed is beginning to attract national headlines. And, on Friday, David Suzuki will give a talk in Whitehorse about the importance of protecting the Peel, before he embarks on a paddling trip in the watershed with his family.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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