With the Chinese snapping up Yukon mineral properties, the need to protect the Peel Watershed from industrial development has become even greater, said the chair of the North Yukon Renewable Resources Council.
“Right now, with all the mines and development happening in the Yukon, and investment, and now the Chinese are moving in, there’s even more potential for something to happen in that area,” Robert Bruce told a team of Yukon government officials at the first of a series of community meetings on the Peel land-use plan.
The plan calls for protection of 80 per cent of the 68,000-square-kilometre watershed. Bruce can live with that, but would prefer it was 100 per cent to protect the caribou and the fish.
And don’t even think about putting in new roads, the former New Democrat MLA warned. “Once access goes through, no matter if it’s only even winter access, we’re going to be in big trouble.”
Bruce was one of about a dozen people, tightly packed into the council’s meeting room, along with five bureaucrats and an “independent” facilitator all recently arrived on a chartered aircraft from Whitehorse.
By contrast, lone Peel Watershed planning commissioner Steve Taylor, who was invited at the last minute, had to come on the scheduled flight the day before, stay with friends and sit on the sidelines.
Taylor’s commission just spent the past five years reading the material, analyzing the information, listening to stakeholders, discussing the possibilities and producing the 350-page comprehensive Peel plan but, apparently, that doesn’t count for much now.
When he was given a few minutes to make some opening remarks, he provided much-needed context and a little comfort in the sea of bewildering bureaucratize and land-use lingo.
About an hour into the suppertime meeting, the facilitator turfed the carefully scripted agenda because it clearly wasn’t working: nobody wanted to play “comment-by-theme.”
All attempts to corral people’s comments in neatly packaged “theme” chutes failed. Rather than talk about the “conservation focus,” they wanted to speak about roads and caribou, protection and climate change, laws and implementation.
They also had plenty of questions.
Most were handled by Jen Meurer, a land-use planner with Energy, Mines And Resources, the department leading the consultation charge. Some were technical, but some delved into policy and politics.
What about climate change? What about the caribou? How is the plan going to be implemented? Is a railway going to be built? Are there going to be new laws to give the recommendations some clout? Will no really mean no, like the Berger Inquiry?
If anyone was keeping score, nobody during the three-hour meeting opposed the plan or the amount of land it protects.
Most of the Vuntut Gwichin First Nation’s traditional territory already has a land-use plan – the North Yukon plan was finalized in 2009.
Only a small percentage of Vuntut traditional territory falls within the Peel planning region. It has a couple of pieces of land and an interest in the wintering grounds of the Porcupine caribou, which includes the Peel.
Chief Joe Linklater, who is stepping down from his post in November, said his government hasn’t yet made “any hard and fast recommendations at this point” on the Peel plan.
But, he acknowledged, the “tricky part” is going to be getting agreement from all four First Nations and the Yukon government on whether to accept, reject or propose modifications to the plan before sending it back to the commission.
Appearing via video presentation, the chiefs of the Na-cho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondek Hwech’in made their Peel position abundantly clear.
“We need total protection out there,” said Na-cho Nyak Dun Chief Simon Mervyn in the 10-minute closing film. “The environment is not for sale, period.”
Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Eddie Taylor said it’s pulling out all the stops to protect the Peel, a region the members use all the time.
“The waters up there and the land has to be protected,” Taylor said. “There’s no other way.”
Transcripts of the public meetings will be posted on the Energy, Mines and Resources website: www.peelconsultation.ca, but not until two weeks after they take place.
The next community meeting is in Dawson City at the Tr’ondek Hwech’in Hall on August 23. There’s a drop-in session from 3 to 5 p.m. and a presentation and discussion from 7 to 9 p.m.
Yukon writer Mary Walden is doing a series of stories about the Peel consultation meetings. The former CBC journalist and Yukon News editor also co-owns a wilderness tourism company that does canoe trips in the region. You can read more Peel stories at http://peelwatershed.blogspot.com.