A mining company’s controversial plan to a build a road and airstrip through the pristine Wind River Valley passed a major hurdle last month.
The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board approved Vancouver-based Cash Minerals’ plan and attached 46 conditions that must be met by the company to lessen impacts on the land.
Building 178 kilometres of winter road, adding spur roads and an airstrip “will have significant adverse environmental or socio-economic effects,” concluded the 35-page review, written by the assessment board’s Mayo office.
The roads and airstrip are meant to increase uranium exploration in the 32,000-square-kilometre Wind River region in northeast Yukon.
Despite the assessment board’s opinion that use of the road, airstrip, and fuel and supply caches could harm tourism, trapping, land and animal habitat, the plan was approved pending Cash Minerals’ following 46 requirements laid out in the review.
Cash Minerals, a junior mining company already operating several small uranium exploration camps, attracted much criticism from Yukon residents and organizations for its plan.
Most criticism centered on the possibility of uranium mining and its harmful effects. But the review focused on the proposed project only, which has nothing to do with actual mining.
A proposal for uranium mining, though, would trigger another assessment board review.
The assessment board had to extend the review period to handle the amount of comments sent in from the public. More than 200 comments were submitted — the most received for a single project.
When contacted, Cash Minerals would only say the assessment board review met the company’s expectations.
“We are pleased with the recommendations and look forward to (Yukon government’s) decision,” said Cash’s vice-president of engineering Peter Arendt.
“There isn’t really a lot to say publicly. We’re following the process.”
The process, though, did not go far enough, according to critics.
The scope of the project and its impacts were too big for the Mayo office to handle and its review is inadequate, said Gerry Couture, Yukon Conservation Society mining co-ordinator.
The assessment board has three levels of review: a designated office review, an executive committee screening and panel hearings with public consultation.
Cash Minerals’ plan was reviewed by a designated office.
“Given the importance of this project, a higher level of assessment would have done a better job,” said Couture.
“It’s not the quality of the job, but the capacity to do an-depth study. This (level of review) didn’t look for much public input and the timeframes are shorter.”
The Yukon government lands branch has 30 days from Dec. 24 to accept, decline or modify the assessment board’s review.
The society will be lobbying the political and administrative arms of the government to stop the expansion for now, said Couture.
Uranium exploration includes drill pads just over a half-metre square, airstrips where water access is not available for staff and tent camps that usually include core sample boxes and storage.
Cash Minerals wants to double the number of cache sites to eight.
The impact of the drill program itself is minimal, said the review.
The area has been explored and drilled since 1930, yet still used by tour guides offering clients a pristine wildlife experience.
If Cash Minerals follows the assessment board’s recommendations, environmental damage, harm to fish or wildlife habitat and a downturn in tourism should be reduced, eliminated or controlled, said the review.
Trips to the Wind River, commercial and otherwise, have increased over the years.
In 2006, six operators guided 30 clients for a total of 257 user-days, and six rental operators provided canoes to 73 clients who spent 828 user-days on the Wind River.
Use of an airstrip and caches could ruin the “wilderness experience” for guides and their clients, adversely affecting tourism, said the review.
The effects of increased travel can lead to the disturbance of vegetation and wildlife habitat.
To lessen the impact, the review recommends Cash Minerals makes available the locations of caches to tourism operators and travellers through the government.
Increased exploration, which may lead to mining activity, would harm outfitters operating in the Wind River region, said Alan Young, owner of Midnight Sun Outfitting.
“I am astounded that a mining company would think that they could build 250-kilometres of mainline and spur roads, build airstrips, and leave fuel caches in this absolute pristine wilderness area,” he said in a letter to the assessment board.
“This is also my business as a Yukon resident. We have had an application in to build a cabin on a lake that we have a legal lease on for eight years, and it has not been approved.
“The government makes the guide outfitters fill out a form saying how many knives, forks and spoons I have, literally.”
Wind River is known for its rich wildlife.
Caribou, moose, sheep, grizzly and black bears, wolves, coyotes, hares, lynx, fox and other fur-bearers roam the region.
Bird species include ptarmigan, grouse, eagles, and various migratory waterfowl.
“The proposed project directly overlaps with key wildlife areas for several species,” said the assessment board’s review.
The area acts as the winter range for woodland caribou and moose, while golden eagles nest there in spring and summer.
Cash Mineral’s cache 3 and the fixed-wing airstrip are located within a known migration corridor for the Bonnet Plume Caribou herd.
Disturbance or the outright destruction of vegetation “will remove and fragment wildlife habitat for certain species (and) may reduce the long-term viability of various wildlife populations,” said the review.
The major misstep for the assessment board is moving ahead with the review before the Peel Watershed Planning Commission could finish a land-use plan, said Couture.
The draft is expected in March 2008.
“You can’t stop the world, but we’re on the cusp of finishing a land-use plan for the area,” he said.
“The plan may say mining is a go, but it would be much more compressive than a YESAB review. We’re cognizant that mining companies have done a tremendous job in minimizing impacts, we just want things done wisely.”
The commission itself asked for a halt to the review because planning becomes difficult when development happens concurrently.
The assessment board declined to extend the review timeline.
“We’re working with legislated deadlines and we have a set number of days to seek input,” said assessment board assessor Loralee Johnstone.
The Yukon Trapper’s Association asked for more time to submit its opinion on increased exploration in the area.
In a letter to the assessment board, the association expressed concern about the lack of consultation with individual trappers and the absence of a uranium mining policy or land-use plan.
The benefits resulting from the increased exploration in the area are reason enough to approve the expansion, said Yukon Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Dave Austin.
“At this time of the year, the well-paid jobs provided by a project of this nature are a welcome boost to what is generally a sagging Yukon winter economy,” he said.
Exploring doesn’t mean mining and the area has been explored for decades without any mining, he added.