rigs along the dempster

John Diefenbaker would be proud. Back in the late 1950s he was elected prime minister of Canada partly on a campaign promise of “roads to…

John Diefenbaker would be proud.

Back in the late 1950s he was elected prime minister of Canada partly on a campaign promise of “roads to resources.”

The concept was to increase good old-fashioned development in the North.

Development, at least back then, meant mines and oil wells and other industrial processes.

Of course all had to be made accessible by building government-funded roads.

It took about 20 years, but what became known as the Dempster Highway was finally completed.

It runs from just outside Dawson City all the way to Inuvik.

But a funny thing happened to this particular road to resources.

A lot of the central and northern Yukon was suddenly accessible for exploration, but very little in the way of permanent development occurred.

Some industries did a bit of exploration, but nothing permanent happened.

There was one industry that did take advantage of the road though.

Not only did it take advantage of it, it has consistently used it, year after year.

That industry is tourism.

As the only year-round North American road that travels over the Arctic Circle and is freely accessible to the general public, the Dempster has became a destination unto itself.

A highway meant to be for resource extraction has instead became a highway for sightseeing and nature appreciation.

Now this is slowly changing.

The recent surge in oil prices has meant renewed interest in the Eagle Plains area by the fossil fuel industry.

The Yukon government has not been ignoring this attention.

Quite a few oil permits have been issued by the Yukon in this region.

But issuing a permit doesn’t necessarily means any work on the land will occur.

First, a company has to apply to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board and get the necessary permits.

For example, there is a current application in front of the Board by Northern Cross (Yukon) Limited to drill three oil wells this summer right next to the Dempster Highway.

The location is about 40 kilometres south of the Eagle Plains hotel and gas station.

Oil rigs are not pretty things to look at.

They are not  the sight any summer tourist is going to want to see as they travel north.

There is a theory of thought that having industrial development right where everyone can see it is a good thing.

Oil is such a necessary part of modern life it is important that all of us, its users, should see the mess it takes to extract it from the ground.

Oil extraction, no matter the best intentions of the company involved, or the best practice methods that regulators could impose, is messy indeed.

From the used drilling mud that must be disposed of to the tall flare stacks that might be required to flare off any gas that is found, oil rigs are definitely an industrial and polluting concern.

Not exactly the image that tourists driving the Dempster are expecting. Nor is it what has been advertised by the Yukon government Tourism department.

There are not that many solutions that can satisfy both industrial requirements and the tourist need for uninterrupted views capes.

Moving the oil rigs out of view of the highway would mean multiple access roads off the Dempster.

The more roads there are on a landscape the greater the habitat fragmentation that can occur.

Telling tourists that they can expect their scenic road trip across the Arctic Circle to be marred by development that looks like its out of Northern Alberta is not exactly a key tourism selling point.

It is a dilemma that land managers and politicians are going to have to resolve.

Of course, that past politician who inspired the road, Diefenbaker, was pretty clear on what he envisioned the Dempster to be.

One can only hope that the current-day concept of both resources and development includes tourists and their appreciation of the Dempster Highway.

For more information on the proposed drilling operation this summer along the Dempster Highway visit the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board website.

Deadline for comments on the drilling operation application is May 12th, 2008.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse-based part-time environmentalist.