Roads are the bane of the wilderness

The forces of nature have been at work through the ages in the Peel watershed and created a magnificent mountain landscape with sparkling lakes, clear flowing rivers and all the wildlife species which embody a healthy northern ecosystem.

COMMENTARY

The forces of nature have been at work through the ages in the Peel watershed and created a magnificent mountain landscape with sparkling lakes, clear flowing rivers and all the wildlife species which embody a healthy northern ecosystem. We can count ourselves lucky because it is not due to our foresight but only to the area’s remoteness that we’ve been given this last chance on a grand scale, to protect a reference of what the rest of the world used to be like.

It is places like the Peel, which give the Yukon its magic and its mystery and we would be spiritually bereft without it. Call it wilderness or native homelands, it is the best of what’s left and once it’s gone, it’s lost forever.

Both Premier Darrell Pasloski and Resources Minister Brad Cathers like to put the size of the Peel into perspective by comparing its size to other provinces, states and countries.

During a presentation at the geoscience forum, Cathers explained how the Peel region is more than 21 times larger than Rhode Island, a small state in the U.S. “More than a million people live there,” he added.

Cathers implied that it is unreasonable to expect an area as large as the Peel to be left in its natural state. What he didn’t mention was that the Yukon, excluding the Peel region, is 153 times larger than the landmass of Rhode Island, with a population of only 34,000.

With such an abundance of land, no wonder the majority of Yukoners want to see the watershed left as a place we can enjoy today and pass on unimpaired to future generations.

The final recommended plan was released in July 2011 following years of public consultation. Prior to that, while land-use planning still was underway, an unbridled staking rush was allowed in the Peel. Mineral claims shot up from 1,658 in 2004 to 12,000 a few years later. Today 8,400 remain. Was it an attempt to predetermine the outcome of the plan, or a way of ensuring that compensation would be due if the latter failed? Likely both.

When the recommended plan emerged, it was a compromise between the interest groups. Nobody got everything they wanted. Wisely, the plan did not allow for roads in the protected areas.

Roads are the bane of wilderness areas. You cannot have roads and industrial development in an otherwise wild landscape and still say that it is wilderness.

If we don’t learn from our experiences, history is bound to repeat itself. Just take a look at our neighbours to the south where, in Alberta, the grizzly bear has lost most of its former range and in 2010 became listed as a threatened species. Same with the woodland caribou, where 70 per cent of the remaining population occurs in herds which are in decline. In British Columbia, 36 out of 52 woodland caribou herds are threatened.

Why? The same old story of habitat encroachment by roads and cutlines, resource exploration/extraction (oil, gas, coal, logging) among other causes. Cumulative impacts translate into death by a thousand cuts. The animals can’t just go somewhere else when we mess with their home – there are no vacant lots in nature. Caribou as well as many other species, both mammals and birds, don’t thrive in a disturbed and fragmented landscape, where they are more exposed to predation and mechanized intrusions.

But let’s get back to the Peel. The government has released some new concepts they’d like us to comment on – seemingly they can’t tell us often enough how much they want to hear from us. Repeatedly, I’ve heard Mr. Cathers speak of the generous 120-day consultation period as being one of the longest in Yukon history. How can we ever thank you? For years, thousands of people have been trying to tell the government what they want, all for naught because the government didn’t like what they heard.

I was confused when I first looked at the sketchy concepts, not just because of the deceptive colours on their maps, but because words I was familiar with had been given a new meaning. We can now have roads and mines in protected areas, as well as in the vast areas reclassified as a “restricted use wilderness areas.”

The planners talk about limiting noise levels and protecting views from visual obstructions (try to ignore the bridges) along the popular rivers. They are seemingly unaware that river travellers take day hikes up in the mountains or go on extended multi-day backpacking trips. And how will you avoid pollution of the rivers? Mining proponents talk about their “best practices.” Well, scan the headlines and you’ll see that industrial accidents happen with the same regularity as vehicle collisions in Whitehorse.

With all the land that is open to exploration and development in the Yukon, protecting the entire Peel would be a fair balance.

Jannik Schou is a Lake Laberge resident who has lived 19 months in the Peel watershed.