Peel Watershed: you use it, you lose it

Jimmy Johnny was growing tired of the pesky reporters he was guiding. Back in Mayo, he didn't mind mingling with these strangers.

Duo Lakes

Jimmy Johnny was growing tired of the pesky reporters he was guiding.

Back in Mayo, he didn’t mind mingling with these strangers. But out here, on the quiet banks of Duo Lakes at the feet of several jagged mountains covered in hundred-year-old rock slides, Johnny wanders off to be alone.

An elder with the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Johnny gathers blueberries in a white ice-cream bucket and fills it halfway with semi-ripe fruit. He gathers plants to make traditional medicine. He slings his gun over his shoulder and looks for bears.

But every time he trails off on his own, cameras and microphones soon follow.

He’s not used to the media, but he wants to get his message out, he says.

On the second night of the trip, he’s reluctantly dragged out to a bluff for the last interview of the day.

“I’m going to do this one in my native language,” he says.

The youth in his hometown of Mayo, where the Na-Cho Nyak Dun is based, aren’t following in his footsteps and learning about the ancestral uses of the Peel Watershed, he says.

“Some are willing to come, some are not interested,” he says. “They’re into Nintendo, video games, drugs and alcohol.”

Johnny, 64, doesn’t always finish his words. He utters them in a gravelly voice and he lowers his volume sporadically. His eyes are watery with age, but his countenance is youthful, a rascal’s grin exaggerated by wrinkles and weathered skin.

The land is riddled with black stone stumps where his forebears used to sharpen axes. There are high-caches and gravesites dotting the landscape, and ancient trails used by a once-migrant people cover the region. Otherwise, it is devoid of human habitation.

“I want to see the First Nation come out and use this place again,” he says. “There’s certain areas I’ve pointed out to them that are really valuable to us.

“I hope that happens while I’m still alive.”

For the last 52 years, he’s outfitted along the wild rivers of the Peel Watershed. He’s climbed its mountain passes and hunted its wild game. He can list off the men – his father, his uncle, Louis Brown, Paul Germaine – who showed him the way.

The crowded mountain ridges stretch past the horizon. It’s hard to imagine such a vast inheritance. “This is where I feel like I belong,” he says. “I call it my home, and I feel like I belong here. Right here, right on this very spot.”

While aboriginal history is documented in the heritage departments across the territory, they can’t replace the experience of living off the land.

“That’s the native way of thinking,” says Johnny. “If you’re living on this land, you’re going to survive by it.”

But that lifestyle is threatened.

For the last five years, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission has gathered scientific, economic and cultural information on the 68,000-square-kilometre region. Its job was to root out the most valuable aspects in every part of the watershed, from animals to minerals to sacred First Nation sites.

The goal is to avoid conflicts between the various interests using the watershed. By measuring an ore discovery against the wetland above it, for example, they were to guide government choices in granting mineral claims, tourism permits and the like.

Last December, the commission’s final plan called for 80 per cent of the watershed to be kept free of development.

Industry would cripple other uses, like wilderness tourism, outfitting and heritage excursions, the commission said.

That assertion was challenged by the mining lobby, which is accustomed to free-entry rules that allow it to tap subsurface mineral rights even on private land.

The plan would sink the Yukon economy, said Carl Schulze, president of the Chamber of Mines. Denying free-entry would mark the end of the rule of law and natural justice in Canada, he said.

Besides, “values” that celebrate nature are relativistic and allow certain ethnic groups to put their values over others, he said.

In lobbying the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, which runs land-use commissions in Yukon, Schulze called pro-conservation values “quasi-religious.”

“I get kind of upset when I hear these guys are saying this because I truly believe mining exploration people in Whitehorse, who are sitting in the office, have never set foot in this area,” says Johnny.

Through its extensive research, the commission concluded wildlife and nature have value that trumps development.

“There’s a lot in this area that hasn’t been documented or that hasn’t been researched, whether it’s the paleontological finds or even the wildlife,” says Blaine Walden, whose business, Walden’s Guiding and Outfitting, has run trips into the Peel for 20 years.

The Bonnet Plume caribou herd is the only one in North America without roads cutting through its migratory route, he said.

“For research and education it could became a world-class study area,” he says. “There aren’t that many places left like this.”

If the Peel plan were adopted as recommended, covering 54,400 square kilometres or 80 per cent of the entire watershed, it would rank as the largest protected area in North America after Hawaii’s protected islands.

However, the Peel wouldn’t be a park, just governed by a land-use plan.

“People think about Banff as an icon, they think about Nahanni as an icon,” said Karen Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society, one of the media junket’s funders.

“If the entire Peel gets protected as the First Nations want it to be, it would be 10 times the size of Banff, it would be seven times the size of Yellowstone in the United States. It would be one of the biggest conservation achievements in the world.”

And it would kill the Yukon’s mineral industry, say miners.

But the region’s richest assets – uranium deposits along the Wind River, oil and gas in the Peel plateau and the Crest iron ore deposit on the Snake River – haven’t progressed beyond early exploration.

And, as the 2010 exploration season winds down, the Yukon is predicting another good year for investment. This, despite a moratorium on new staking in the Peel Watershed since February.

Mineral exploration has averaged $35 million over the last two decades, said Mike Burke, head of the Yukon’s mineral services branch. This year, the government expects more than $100 million in expenditures.

Despite this, the chamber has pushed its argument that Peel protection represents doomsday for the industry.

And now the finale is at hand. The Yukon and four First Nation governments are reviewing the commission’s plan until December, seeking public comment in the meantime.

The First Nations want the watershed fully protected. The Yukon government, which suppressed pro-conservation advice from its own officials, says it doesn’t have an opinion on the plan yet.

The problem boils down to a basic question: can people coexist in a pristine region without fundamentally changing it?

The commission said no. Roads would open up the Peel Watershed to tons of unexpected pressures, from hunting to vehicles to chemical spills.

If mining were allowed, the values First Nations, conservationists, tourism operators and outfitters hold dear would be damaged.

Of course, the Peel is not completely untouched.

There are several contaminated sites and dozens of old exploration camps. And it’s certainly not safe from climate change.

“The elders have been talking about how change is going to be happening,” says Johnny.

“Government people say they’re going to work on climate change, how are they going to do that? They can’t beat Mother Nature, I’ll tell you that right now. They’re never going to win.”

And the miners don’t hate the environment. They just have more confidence in peaceful coexistence with wilderness. They’re willing to risk a pristine ecosystem for the payoff of a more developed region because they say they have the science to fix it.

“This land is being disturbed and the mining industry says they’re going to clean up,” says Johnny. “They say they’re going to make new ground. But it won’t be the same. Not for me, not for the animals.”

“Any of us who have travelled the world or even in the southern parts of this country have seen how it’s crisscrossed with roads,” said Jill Pangman, who sits on the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon Chapter board, another group that funded the trip.

“Those of us who have been involved with conservation initiatives have seen how difficult it is. Once an area’s been developed, to have it then become a wild, intact wilderness – it’s almost impossible.

“We also see how places that have become icons for wilderness in Canada, like Banff National Park, are hammered by highways going through them.”

Until you visit a wild place like the Peel, you don’t realize how humanized your world is.

Over three days, not a single plane flew over the camp at Duo Lakes.

And so the cost of industrial development –

should it be allowed – piles up: the loss of First Nation heritage, the interruption of the migratory patterns of animals, big and small, the loss of pristine water and air and of a place largely cut off from the world – where a person is on par with everything else on the land.

The plan is a guide, not the law, and can be amended in the future. The minerals aren’t going anywhere.

Still, miners want the Peel open to development today, arguing mining can coexist with natural values.

But, standing in the shadow of mountains on the shores of an eerily still lake, you have to ask, “What if?”

What if we push too far, do something reckless – something that can’t be undone?

Unlike the Klondike or the Southern Lakes, this place hasn’t been crisscrossed by roads and settled by people.

The Peel is still raw and wild – unlike anywhere else in the country. Development would end that, forever.

Forever can’t be mitigated.

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