Peel watershed is the Yukon’s tourism mecca, say tourism operators

The mining industry's Chicken Little rhetoric is getting a little stale, says the Yukon's wilderness Tourism Association. "It's always the end of the world (with miners)" said Blaine Walden, the association's vice-president.

The mining industry’s Chicken Little rhetoric is getting a little stale, says the Yukon’s wilderness Tourism Association.

“It’s always the end of the world (with miners)” said Blaine Walden, the association’s vice-president.

“When the land claims negotiations started, and when there’s any proposal for any size of protection, it’s the end of the word.”

“That’s a real alarmist attitude. If you look around at the Yukon today, a few years ago there was nothing. Now there’s one operating mine and there’s probably a half dozen mines throughout the Yukon ready to come on-stream.”

“Mining is flourishing in the Yukon, so to say the sky is falling if they’re cut out a part of the Peel I think is alarmist and not fair.”

The association has no objection to responsible development, where it’s appropriate.

Dig, drill and quad across the rest of the territory to your heart’s content, but keep the Peel watershed wild at heart, said Walden.

“Generally, the tourism industry has not objected to development,” said Walden. “(But the Peel) is so unique and so important to tourism – this is one region that needs to be set aside for industries other than resource extraction.”

Grizzly bears and caribou, clean rivers and stunning natural panoramas make this region a magnet for adventure tourism, and its very nature is essential to creating sustainable low-impact jobs, said Blaine Walden, the association’s vice-president.

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s public consultations have been depicted as a battle between industries, said Walden.

However, its mission is to identify elements unique to the Peel, and to manage them properly.

Other places have world-class mineral and fossil fuel deposits, but the Peel has undisturbed wilderness, he said.

That’s what stands out there.

“In the North Yukon plan, they knew oil and gas was a big value in that area and a lot of that plan was developed with oil and gas in mind,” he said.

“But, early on, the Peel was identified as an area with an intact wilderness that has very little industrial impact.”

Larger than New Hampshire and Vermont combined, the Peel watershed is braided by metallic-blue rivers and cut by rugged mountains. The region supports healthy populations of Dall sheep, woodland caribou, grizzly and black bear populations, lynx and wolverine, among other species.

“There are no communities, no permanent roads; it’s really been the way it always has,” said Walden. “So the commission looked at that and preserving that intact wilderness value as part of the main mandate of the commission.”

Leaning towards wilderness tourism shouldn’t be seen as a lack of balance in the commission’s consultation process, he said.

“The renewable industries such as touring, outfitting and trapping can give an economic benefit and still not jeopardize the intact ecosystem,” said Walden.

When planning commissions hit the Dawson and Whitehorse areas, they might favour mining, snowmobiling, quading and boating. These interests make these regions unique in the Yukon.

But the Peel’s strength is its wilderness, said Walden.

Tourism companies prefer the commission’s second scenario, which, though not perfect, favours conservation.

The commission’s first scenario allows permanent roads in the northern Peel watershed.

The third scenario, included after last-minute lobbying by mining interests, opens the possibility of permanent roads crisscrossing the Peel region from north to south, east to west.

The second scenario is still a 50-50 split between land open to permanent roads and lands left alone, said Walden.

“There’s still going to be oil and gas, there’s still going to be mining and there will likely be an all-season road coming in from the north,” he said.

The second scenario allows for oil and gas fields in the northern Peel Plateau to remain open, and the Crest iron deposit on the northern Snake River would also be open, he said.

With the rest off-limits, the tourism industry has some certainty that it can advertise the Peel as an intact ecosystem.

But add any more industry into the mix, and the wilderness brand vanishes.

There are six massive rivers running through the Peel and all of them have become highly attractive to foreign and domestic travellers.

Outfitters arrived in the Peel during the 1950s, and canoe trips began on the Snake and the Wind rivers about 20 years ago, he said.

“Since then, its been a progressive growth of new operators and all of the rivers are now being utilized,” said Walden.

The industry has expanded to hiking trips, self-guided trips off the Dempster Highway and dog-sledding excursions. Visitors will pay more than $4,000 for a canoe trip and more than $10,000 for a hunting trip.

“You could easily say that tourism in the area is a multi-million yearly contributor to the economy,” said Walden.

Air charters fly out of Mayo and tourists spend time before and after their excursions in Whitehorse.

“These are high-end tourists,” he said. “When they decide to buy some souvenirs they look at artwork and paintings, not just a T-shirt.”

The Peel can compete with any wilderness tourism site in North America, but the hunt for pristine nature is growing globally with big markets in Costa Rica and Africa, said Walden.

“People are going there to see what it was like before industrial development,” he said. “That is critical and as that disappears, it’s going to become more valuable.”

“The Peel can be on par with anywhere in the world on that.”

The Peel planning commission began its consultations with only the two most environmentally friendly scenarios, until last week’s last minute addition courtesy of the Yukon Chamber of Mines.

Mining interests always lobby with unreasonable fear-mongering, said Walden.

If the Yukon doesn’t diversify its economy it will end up like Alberta where they have no choice but to keep expanding resource extraction.

“Mining is boom and bust,” he said. “There’s going to be a huge economic impact with a mine, but that’s going to disappear. If we jeopardize everything we have in a boom and bust cycle, we’re going to lose what we have.”

“I think most Yukoners live here for the wilderness,” he said.

“In the future that’s going to be worth more than the Crest iron deposit.”

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com.

See commentary page 7.