Peel Watershed Yukon’s wilderness a gift to the world

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By Juri Peepre

Special to the News

Deciding the future of the Peel Watershed is more than a local matter. The outcome of land-use planning now underway will say much to the world about how Yukon people see their home place.

Will the Peel Watershed Planning Commission and the Yukon government set a visionary path of protection and careful stewardship for this celebrated wilderness, or will it be business as usual? Will the Yukon contribute to global conservation of nature, or whittle away at one of Canada’s great and still largely pristine mountain river ecosystems?

A promise of change is being fulfilled to the south. US President Obama reversed a cynical last-minute giveaway by the Bush administration and cancelled leases to drill for oil and gas around America’s most treasured national parks. He has also refused to perpetuate a policy of denial on global climate change, outlining an ambitious and leading role for the United States in dealing with the issue.

Reason has returned to the Oval Office and the United States is now on the verge of a climateand energy-driven green revolution.

The Yukon was once a conservation leader—recall the hopeful days that led to the Yukon Conservation Strategy and the Umbrella Final Agreement, or the Yukon Environment Act with its embracing language on the value of wilderness. Remember the Yukon’s commitment, along with all other Canadian jurisdictions, to complete a network of protected areas as part of our responsibility to conserve biodiversity and the vitality of the North.

Sadly, in the absence of enlightened leadership and under the weight of vested local corporate interests, the Yukon left the progressive mainstream, retreating to a muddy backwater of 1950s thinking.

Fear mongering about the prospect of a large protected area in the Peel Watershed has spilled out of the chambers of business and mining and into the halls of a sympathetic Yukon government. Duplicity runs deep as politicians duck the conservation question and defer to the Peel Planning Commission, while their department staff manoeuvre to ensure that the commission does not recommend more than scraps of wilderness protection—if any at all.

Yukon mandarins, the deputy deciders, claim there is no mandate for new protected areas, while others say it’s just too hard and costly. According to the Energy Mines and Resources Department, wilderness has no value and a large protected area no place in the Peel watershed.

Apparently mining, oil and gas development, roads and industrial infrastructure can all exist “responsibly” everywhere in the Peel watershed—there is no need to leave more parts of our landscape off-limits to bulldozers.

This view contrasts sharply with that of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which states ,“Protected areas are internationally recognized as a major tool for conserving species and ecosystems. The ecosystems that they protect provide a range of goods and services essential to human well-being, such as watersheds….”

The Yukon government notion that we can somehow manage ever-increasing industrial development throughout the Peel basin, and still protect water, cultural heritage, wildlife and wilderness values, is simply bunk.

Why the widespread denial and outright hostility towards the Yukon’s conservation obligations? Is there no hope for a future that still supports big wild places? Is it not enough that the great majority of Yukoners and Canadians (according to recent polls) want to protect 60 to 75 per cent of our vast northern boreal forests?

Do the First Nations’ calls for protection of the Peel Watershed not count in the mathematics of our democracy?

Today’s scientific consensus is that we should protect more than half of the carbon-rich boreal ecosystem in order to ensure its ecosystem services and benefits are maintained in the long term.

Last year, more than 1,500 leading scientists recommended that at least half of Canada’s boreal forest be protected—if we are to have any chance of conserving free roaming wildlife populations and intact ecosystems, especially in light of a changing climate.

In the Yukon, there is a lingering and baffling conviction among government agencies and resource industry groups that conservation areas need to be small, leaving most of the land available for industry in happy co-existence with an accommodating Mother Nature.

After a century of speculating in junior mining stocks and subsidizing mining exploration and production companies you would think we would know better. Subsidies? Who is stuck with the huge tab for cleaning up the massive abandoned Faro mine?

Mining has a place in the Yukon, but after the full and true costs of mining are calculated, what would the long-term economic and social benefit of this boom-and-bust industry be in a place like the Peel Watershed? And how would that benefit compare to other more sustainable uses of the land?

Why would anyone grant exclusive first-come-first-served rights over the vast majority of land to a resource industry with a deplorable worldwide history of pollution, fraud and poor citizenship?

Still, it’s not all bleak; other jurisdictions have risen to the challenge. During the past two years, the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories announced plans to protect almost 140,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in the Yukon’s neighbouring territory. This is one of the largest areas of Canadian wilderness ever to be protected and one of the greatest conservation achievements in North America. These protected lands, identified by aboriginal communities, cover an area almost twice the size of Nova Scotia.

In 2008, Ontario’s Premier McGuinty announced a vision to protect 225,000 km2 of intact boreal forest in an interconnected network across the northern part of the province. The future of Ontario’s northern boreal lands and waters will be set through land-use planning with First Nations.

Premier McGuinty was widely commended for relying on science when he designated the target of more than 50 per cent of Ontario’s northern boreal forest for protection in this unprecedented policy. McGuinty also announced a commitment to change the Mining Act from a ‘free-entry’ system to one that respects the rights of First Nations.

The Umbrella Final Agreement gives the Yukon government and First Nations plenty of opportunity to negotiate more protected areas as they see fit. But the Yukon also has a moral duty to participate in global conservation initiatives. The International Convention on Biodiversity was signed in 1992 and the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, which the Yukon supported, stipulated completing a protected-areas network.

In 2004, the 188 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, including Canada, approved a far-reaching program of work on protected areas, a renewed global commitment by governments to complete a system of protected areas.

The convention agreement supports the “establishment and maintenance of comprehensive, effectively managed and ecologically representative national and regional systems of protected areas, with a deadline of 2110 for terrestrial areas.” What happened to the Yukon’s commitment to conservation? Would protection of the Peel Watershed not make a splendid contribution to this global effort, and also fulfil the calls for protection by people in the communities most affected by the Peel?

As the Peel Watershed Planning Commission draws closer to recommending a land-use plan for this breathtaking northern wilderness, it needs to ignore the misguided alarm coming from the territorial government and resource industries. Instead it needs to look hard at the opportunity—and responsibility—for change in the conventional laissez-faire attitude towards land and nature in the Yukon.

A large protected area in the Peel Watershed—one that includes several of the world-renowned tributary rivers such as the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume—will be a timeless legacy and inspiration to Yukon people, the communities and First Nations in the region, and to the world.

Juri Peepre was a long-time Yukoner, now living in BC. He is a co-author of two books on the Peel watershed.

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