Shallow Bay farm won’t harm wetlands: official

A proposed farm won’t have any negative impact on wetlands near Lake Laberge, says the assistant deputy minister of Energy, Mines and Resources.

A proposed farm won’t have any negative impact on wetlands near Lake Laberge, says the assistant deputy minister of Energy, Mines and Resources.

In response to detailed opposition from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Greg Komaromi defended his decision to ignore a recommendation from the land application review committee and approve an agricultural application seeking about 24 hectares near Shallow Bay.

Stringent setbacks would be required in order for the existing grazing lease to be converted into private agricultural land, Komaromi said in a December 5 letter.

CPAWS is concerned the application from Whitehorse-based farmer Len Walchuk doesn’t respect the ordinary high-water mark of the “globally significant” wetlands.

“We have serious concerns with your department’s decision to grant (Walchuk) permission to take agricultural application 786 to title,” CPAWS spokesman Mac Hislop said in an October 27 letter to Komaromi.

“Wetlands are key drivers of biological diversity and perform myriad essential ecological and environmental functions,” said Hislop.

“Agricultural activities and conversion of wetlands for agricultural purposes have eliminated enormous amounts of waterfowl habitat throughout Canada.

“Not only is good waterfowl habitat at significant risk but so too are many species of waterfowl in Canada.”

But the land in question has been tenured for agricultural use for over 25 years, Komaromi said in response.

“I do not believe that simple conversion of that tenure from lease to title poses the ecological threat that you contend,” he said.

“The setbacks imposed on this application are more restrictive than any other disposition along Shallow Bay.”

The official high-water mark of the area should be where stands of willow meet aspen and spruce trees, said Hislop, citing data from the Environment department, the Canadian Wildlife Service and CPAWS scientists.

“There is a clear and major discrepancy between the agricultural branch’s concept of high-water mark and that of other branches and departments,” he said.

The required setbacks of Walchuk’s application are 100 metres from Shallow Bay — well above the ordinary high water mark, compared to other farms in the area, said Komaromi.

And the application’s required setback from Horse Creek is 30 metres, “the most stringent that has been required on this waterway,” he said.

“I understand your concerns for the wetland interests at Shallow Bay but I believe these setback requirements balance the potential for useful development with protection of the natural environment.”

Walchuk and his wife, Karla DesRosiers, are seeking to convert three grazing leases covering about 132 hectares into agricultural land adjacent to Laberge Ranch and Outfitters Ltd. that has been in DesRosiers family for several generations.

They’ve been trying to expand their farm for years.

Their applications are within the Ta’an Kwach’an Council’s traditional territory but excluded from the First Nation’s land claim settlement.

The Ta’an refused to participate in the land application review process last year, saying it wasn’t interested in seeing any more Ta’an traditional territory convert to agricultural land.

In June,  Walchuk and DesRosiers appealed to Energy, Mines and Resources minister Archie Lang for help, after the Ta’an repeatedly refused meetings and discussions.

Walchuk and DesRosiers asked Lang to “look into this matter.”

But Lang didn’t have anything to do with the decision to set aside the recommendation for denial from the land application review committee that came in August, said Komaromi.

“The minister may well have met with the applicants, but I can assure you that the decision to proceed with this disposition was mine alone,” Komaromi said in the December 5 letter.

Once Walchuk’s application passed the land application review committee on Komaromi’s recommendation, it went to the department of Community Services for subdivision approval.

CPAWS asked Community Services to either deny the application or hold a public hearing “to further assess the potential impacts of this agricultural application on the globally significant wetlands of Shallow Bay.”

Hislop questioned the due process behind Komaromi’s decision and the validity of his responses to CPAWS’ concerns.

Komaromi “did not substantively address the ecological issues that we raised,” Hislop said in a December 16 letter to Eric Magnuson, assistant deputy minister of Community Services.

Furthermore, Komaromi “failed to acknowledge that Shallow Bay is a globally significant wetland” and  “provided no defensible explanation why land conversion in this area will not harm the wetlands,” said Hislop.

“The public interest is clear, and transparent decision making has not been served by this decision.”

Community Services approved Walchuk’s application in December.

“The application met the acceptance criteria of the Subdivision Act and regulations,” Magnuson said in a December 19 response to CPAWS.

“Although I am aware that there is opposition to this proposed disposition, it is not the role of the subdivision application review to overrule or change a disposition decision already made.”

Requiring larger setbacks would have rendered the parcel useless for agricultural purposes, he added.

Walchuk now needs to survey the land and will receive title as long as subdivision requirements are respected.

Since they weren’t processed before November 2005, DesRosiers’ applications will require approval from the Yukon Environmental and Socioeconomic Assessment Board.