Eighty per cent of the Peel River Watershed should be protected from industrial activity and preserved in its pristine state, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission advised in its final plan Thursday.
Road access should be banned at the southern and eastern edges of the 68,000-square-kilometre watershed and heavily restricted in the rest, says the commission’s final recommended plan.
Access to the Crest iron ore deposit should be prohibited, the plan suggests. And the Wind River Trail, which cuts through a contentious region rich in uranium and natural beauty, should be stripped of its road designation.
Delicate winter river flows are vulnerable to industrial activity and shouldn’t be toyed with, the commission found.
Mineral staking in four-fifths of the watershed should be prohibited and the current mining claims should be grandfathered.
Only around the Dempster Highway and near the Eagle Plains region can life go on as usual, the commissioners decided.
The plan is a surprising final punch for the beleaguered commission—which has been heavily lobbied by environmental and mining groups over the last year after successive drafts of the plan were released.
It couldn’t find any middle ground that would satisfy the different interests, so it decided to stick to principles of sustainable development—outlined in the Umbrella Final Agreement that mandates its existence—and write
“a conservative, cautious plan that preserves society’s future options.”
The commission also sided with First Nations, which demanded heavy protection after being unsatisfied by early drafts.
Chief Simon Mervyn, head of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation, even threatened to seek national park status if the land wasn’t protected.
The commission was also influenced by public opinion, which favoured protection.
“Large segments of the Yukon public have identified values and interests that are congruent with those of the affected First Nations,” says the plan.
“Public opinion indicates that surface access is likely to undermine the region’s wilderness character outside of the immediate Dempster Highway corridor.”
Seventy per cent of Yukoners wanted heavy protection in the Peel, a Datapath Systems poll found in September.
The plan is certainly no gift to the Yukon government after Premier Dennis Fentie was caught suppressing pro-conservation documents his government was sending to the commission.
The incident added to the perception the government favoured the miners.
The plan will now be reviewed over the next few months between the territorial government and the Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Vuntut Gwitchin and Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nations, as well as the Gwich’in Tribal Council.
“The commission’s conundrum was that nearly everyone who commented on the draft plan rejected compromise as fatal to their interest,” said the commission.
The miners wouldn’t allow a partial ban on staking; the First Nations wouldn’t budge on heavy protection.
“We drew one important conclusion: not all resource conflicts are manageable by techniques—some conflicts are intractable,” says the plan.
While miners insisted free-staking is a right, it undermines the rights of others by not tolerating environmental and cultural values.
“We were at a fork in the trail and had to choose to manage for one cluster of interests or the other,” said the commission in the plan. “We were told this in so many words by industry, by the First Nations, by the wilderness advocates, by people in general and by the logic of the situation.”
“As a result, we devised what we believe is a conservative, cautious plan that preserves society’s future options.”
The plan was ill-received by the mining lobby after its release.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Carl Schulze, president of the Yukon Chamber of Mines.
Despite grandfathering existing claims, the plan renders them “useless” because equipment, fuel and housing cannot be transported, said Schulze.
“It’s sending a very strong message that mining is not welcome in the Peel,” he said. “It will send a secondary more indirect message that mining may not be welcome in the territory at all.”
The commission is emphatic the plan is not meant to be a precedent for the next six land-use regions that will undergo planning.
“That’s true, it is a separate plan,” said Schulze.
But it will have an influence nonetheless, he said.
“You’re setting a precedent regardless, even if you put in a disclaimer.”
Environmental groups praised the plan, but warned the negotiation process between the Yukon and First Nation governments could undermine it.
“We hope (the Yukon government) really engages in good faith in the process of negotiating the final plan with the affected First Nations,” said Karen Baltgalis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society.
“And the first step of showing good faith is putting a moratorium on staking in the Peel until the plan is finalized.
“The last thing we want is a whole bunch of nuisance claims staked at the 11th hour to complicate the situation.”
The Peel commission requested a moratorium when it began its work in 2004, but the Yukon government denied it.
Claims in the region have jumped from 2,071 in 2004 to 10,666 in 2008, especially in the Wind River region, according to the conservation society.
That’s given the mining lobby considerable leverage.
They’ve consistently argued the exploration dollars poured into the territory in the last five years would disappear with a pro-conservation land-use plan.
Schulze’s chief concern with the final plan is the Crest iron deposit, a “world-class” find that could be worth billions of dollars, he said.
“In all of the other drafts, that area was placed within an integrated management area, and it isn’t anymore,” he said.
The integrated management areas can now only be found along the Dempster Highway and at Eagle Plains. The Crest deposit is now in a special management area, the designation given to protected lands.
“There’s no way anyone will develop that now and that is a huge body blow for the Yukon,” said Schulze.
The ore body isn’t going to be unearthed anytime soon due to the expense of remote extraction and transportation, the commission found.
But the commission did open around 19 per cent of the Peel to mining, in places where it is both viable and least environmentally harmful.
Land along the southern segment of the Dempster Highway will be open to mineral staking. And an area near the watershed’s northern tip will remain open to staking and oil and gas exploration.
But in both cases, regulations and public consultation conditions should be rigorous, the plan said.
ATV use is hurting caribou populations and should be better monitored, the plan also found.
More study on the cumulative effects of fossil fuel activity must be done. And there should be work on water flow, which is poorly understood.
The plan—even if it were accepted by the various governments in its current form—is amendable in the future.
It is meant as a general road map for development in the region, and is not a legally binding document.
The commission delivered the plan to the Yukon and First Nation governments Thursday.
The commissioners are withholding comment until the stakeholders can read the plan.
They have scheduled a news conference for next Friday.
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