Territory playing for time: chiefs

Disappointed, but not surprised.

Disappointed, but not surprised.

That’s how the chiefs of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nations describe their reaction to the Yukon government’s rejection of a plan to protect 80 per cent of the Peel watershed.

The Yukon Party government only offered the vaguest of reasons for rejecting the plan on the onset of the Christmas holidays. The plan is too complicated, the territory complained, and it doesn’t allow for enough “mixed uses.”

Officials wouldn’t elaborate on what this means, but, for both chiefs, the answer is plain enough: the plan isn’t friendly enough to miners.

The four First Nations that have traditional territories in the Peel, meanwhile, have called for full protection of the vast, 77,000 square kilometre, Scotland-sized swath of land in northeast Yukon.

The Peel’s rugged wilderness remains largely pristine, and the affected First Nations and conservationists want it kept that way to create one of the world’s largest protected areas.

Miners, meanwhile, warn that offering wholesale protection of the Peel would rob the territory of jobs and wealth. They’ve criticized the plan for containing “quasi-religious” conservationist values.

Uranium deposits have been discovered along the Wind River. There’s oil and gas in the Peel plateau. And Chevron owns the massive Crest iron deposit along the Snake River.

No matter that many of these claims are remote enough to raise doubts about their potential as profitable mines. Miners are upset – not only over the proportion of the Peel that planners designated off-limits to mining, but also by a complete ban on building roads in the region, creating another big impediment to development.

The government probably realizes that taking any side in this dispute is a lose-lose proposition. Protect the Peel and be damned by miners; open it up and be damned by conservationists and First Nations.

So it may reckon it’s best to do nothing.

Simon Mervyn, chief of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun, expects the government will “stretch out any issue they aren’t happy with.” Eddie Taylor, chief of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, sees the government reaction as political “stickhandling” and doesn’t expect a regional land-use plan to be struck under this government.

Two other First Nations have a say in Peel negotiations: Yukon’s Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the Tetlit Gwitch’in of the Northwest Territories. All four First Nations committed to protecting all of the Peel in a letter sent to the territory in October.

Affected First Nations and the territory have one year to agree on a joint position on the Peel plan. The territory wants to extend this deadline.

Either way, a territorial election will be held before the deadline is reached: the Yukon Party’s mandate expires this autumn.

Oddly enough, a failure to reach an agreement on the Peel may play to the territorial government’s favour. If that happens, the Peel lands revert back to its original owners. The vast bulk of it is Crown land, controlled by the territory.

But bad-faith negotiations could land the territory in court, both chiefs warned.

“We have a couple of extra barrels loaded,” said Mervyn. “Our inherent rights are first and foremost in our minds. If we have to go there, it’s court.”

Both the mealy-mouthness of the Yukon’s response to the Peel plan, and its timing immediately before the holidays, suggests to both chiefs a reluctance to deal with the issue.

Both chiefs also objected to the territory’s assertion that the Peel Watershed Planning Commission somehow erred in its interpretation of the Umbrella Final Agreement when it produced its plan.

“There are members on that commission that know that agreement inside-out,” said Taylor.

Mervyn called the territory’s approach “dismal” and “preposterous.”

First Nation and territorial officials will meet on January 20 to continue negotiations over their response to the plan.

The territorial government’s handling of the creation of the Peel’s regional land-use plan has faced criticism from the start, when it ignored the commission’s request in 2004 to ban the staking of new claims in the region.

Predictably, prospectors rushed in. Claims in the region jumped from 2,071 in 2004 to 10,666 in 2008. Most of the staking rush occurred along the Wind River, which also happens to be a favourite destination for backcountry paddlers.

The government finally imposed a staking ban in February of 2010.

More skepticism was raised over the government’s intentions to preserve to the Peel when it came to light in the summer of 2009 that Premier Dennis Fentie had prevented pro-conservation proposals being submitted to the commission by the territory’s Department of Environment.

Contact John Thompson at