Peel planning heralds new era, or not

This week’s Peel Watershed Planning Commission open house accomplished something that many thought impossible. It got miners and environmentalists to agree on something. More on that in a minute.

This week’s Peel Watershed Planning Commission open house accomplished something that many thought impossible. It got miners and environmentalists to agree on something.

More on that in a minute.

The commission is drafting a plan for the Peel Watershed, an area the size of Scotland.

This is not easy.

The region is prized by industry for its resources, by environmentalists and First Nations for its wild nature and cultural importance. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the various interests rarely see eye-to-eye.

The Peel planners play referee to these passionate, yet disparate interest groups, each of which believe they know the watershed better than anyone else.

The commission insists it doesn’t see planning as an exercise in economic options — but everyone else does.

During Tuesday’s open house, senior planner Reg Whiten didn’t play favourites.

He detailed three options for the Peel, and his upbeat voice didn’t undermine the commission’s aim to give a fair hearing to all interested parties.

That’s not an easy job.

On the wall hung 49 maps of the region — each giving a different view of the Peel. One laid out rare and endemic species, another pinpointed coal deposits, there was even one detailing snow depth, just to name a few.

And while the 50th map isn’t up on the wall, Whiten said there’s even an interest in dinosaur fossil excavation somewhere in the Peel.

From all these maps, the commission has to compile just one.

Whiten and his cohorts don’t seem to sweat the job — they’ve only written the draft of a draft.

But everyone else in the open house was anxious about the Peel’s fate.

The financial fallout from compensating appropriated mining claims would bankrupt the country, said one miner.

The planners’ conservation scenario was not even close to good enough, said Mike Dehn, the executive director of the Yukon’s Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

There were questions about climate change. And whether the plan could be changed or amended in the future.

The open house is the commission’s way of gathering information from affected parties before it drafts that final plan, and map, in the fall.

The commission has just returned from a trip to Inuvik and Fort McPherson, where it spoke with First Nations.

Later this week, it will meet with regulators and government agencies, said Whiten.

The Gwich’in Tribal Council, the Na-cho Nyak Dun and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in all wanted the land kept intact, as it is today.

The Peel is their “homeland,” and, while a generational gap in traditional knowledge may exist, they have revived efforts to ensure their children learn to know the Peel as their ancestors lived it, said Whiten.

The discussion took a jag into the realm of sustainability. Attendees wanted to know how the planners defined it.

And that made commission member Dave Loeks nervous.

“I wish you hadn’t asked that,” said Loeks, noting that oft-cited term is hard to pin down.

Still, he tried.

Sustainability begins with the productivity of the land, its capacity to regenerate fish and wildlife on a consistent basis, said Loeks.

“Without that, nothing survives,” he said.

Once the land is protected, the people have to be, he said.

Last comes economic development.

The emphasis on sustainability comes right out of Chapter 11 of the Umbrella Final Agreement, where the planning commission was born.

The other driving force of the planning is the Peel’s most unique characteristic — its wilderness.

There are few swaths of land the size of Scotland, with little or no industrial development, left in the world, even fewer with a planning commission in charge of managing it.

The commission is a widely untested experiment in governance.

The Innu are doing something similar, said Greg Davidson, a planner with the Canadian Institute of Planners, who creates climate change adaptation plans in Nunavut.

Clashes do arise in planning between First Nation perspectives and Outside knowledge, he said, but Canada is ahead of the pack internationally.

“If you look at the Australians, they’ve only recognized aborigines as people this century,” said Davidson. Australia and Samoa are just beginning to incorporate aboriginal interests in land planning, he said.

Land planning is one important facet of handing power over to the Innu in Nunavut, but the road to consensus is bumpy.

“Technically, the Innu have the authority over the land, but practically, they have no way of implementing it,” he said.

Ottawa still does the environmental assessments and makes the decisions.

“You get a lot of talk about sustainability, but as soon as a big mine comes along, it seems the federal government tends to give the licences and allow it,” he said. The local and

indigenous knowledge seems to be pushed to the background, said Davidson.

The incorporation of First Nation and environmental principles in such a large project is unprecedented, and the Peel is just one of these experiments.

No one is certain that miners have made the same jump from the frontier mentality that left us with messes like Faro, which is going to cost at least $500 million over the next 500 years to prevent an environmental calamity.

If the plan decides that staked land should become a protected area, the claims would become “garbage,” said Yukon Chamber of Mines president Carl Schulze.

“If that area does end up being declared a no-go zone then those claims are essentially unworkable, even if they’re not expropriated,” said Schulze.

“What would likely happen is that there would be compensation paid for all those claims, probably by the Yukon government, and that would probably be a lot of money,” he said.

The amount would depend on the outcome of the commission’s recommendations, but the minimum would be the amount of expenditures spent on a claim, he said. However, it could be more.

“In the last three years there’s been at least over $30 million in that area alone,” he said.

The creation of the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in the 1990s led to a settlement of approximately $100 million between the British Columbia government and a mine company with interests there.

There were disagreements at the open house over what the ore in the Peel is worth.

There were 2,074 mining claims in the Peel in 2004 when the commission began, but now there are 10,666 claims, says the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society website.

They’ve been mounting a campaign for months to educate people on the chaos caused by free staking.

“Nowhere in the current free-entry staking system is there a point where the public can question whether we want exploration in a specific region or whether future mining for a radioactive substance, such as uranium, is desirable,” says the website.

Only the planning commission seems to be changing that.

There are also natural gas and coal deposits to consider, but the activity in the Peel is currently quite low. There have been 19 oil wells in the Peel, but they’re all dry and abandoned now.

When the commission finishes its plan, it won’t be the law. The plan is supposed to guide the decisions of every department that deals with the Peel, said Whiten.

The first document a department considers will always be the recommended plan, he said, but there are subregional planning laws that allow it to be changed.

For now, the commission is meant to create conflict at the discussion table rather than in the Peel itself. By bringing the opposing factions together, there’s a hope everyone can find a watershed they believe in.

And, as we noted, the open house did bring miners and conservationists together.

At least for a moment.

At the end of the presentation, Whiten recommended each attendee fill out a form describing which of the three scenarios they preferred.

“Or say you don’t like any of them,” said Karen Baltgailis from the Yukon Conservation Society.

Schulze seconded that opinion.

“At least Carl and I can agree on that,” she said with a laugh.

Contact James Munson at