Yukon government’s Peel position condemned

Chiefs of the four First Nations with land in the Peel Watershed are "taken aback" and "dismayed" by the Yukon government's recent "surprising" actions.

Chiefs of the four First Nations with land in the Peel Watershed are “taken aback” and “dismayed” by the Yukon government’s recent “surprising” actions.

“The Yukon Government had six years to influence the direction of the Peel River Watershed land use plan, but stayed silent,” said Gwich’in Tribal Council president Richard Nerysoo. “Their recent announcement that they alone would determine what principles will be applied to the final plan is disturbing.”

According to the rules they agreed to, the territorial government should have presented its position in early 2011, the northern chiefs said.

“We were blindsided by these unexpected principles appearing when the plan was almost done,” said Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Eddie Taylor.

“It is outside the process mandated by the Umbrella Final Agreement for the Yukon Party Government to introduce these principles so late in the process,” he said.

As well, the territorial government has violated its own letter of understanding, which all parties signed in January 2011, they said.

Not only has the Yukon government effectively compromised the past six years of work but, by acting unilaterally, it has undermined the integrity of future land-use planning in the territory, said Chief Simon Mervyn of the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun.

Conservationists, tourism operators and the New Democratic Opposition are also all condemning the Yukon government’s stance on the Peel.

Earlier this week, Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers ruled out protecting four-fifths of the vast swath of northeast Yukon, as recommended by the planning commission.

He said he’d prefer to see “the majority of the landscape” open to development, with only “key areas” off limits.

“Drafting arbitrary principles behind closed doors on the 11th hour betrays the government’s intention to scuttle the process after hiding its intentions in order to be elected,” said Karen Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society.

“Their principles … show no vision for the Peel, other than as a playground for a few players in the mining industry,” said Mike Dehn, executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

The Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon said in a news release, it’s “deeply disappointed” with the government’s position.

“To simply disregard the extensive work done by the commission, and the thousands of Yukoners who contributed to it, undermines all land-planning efforts in this territory and draws into question the government’s commitment to their constituents,” said chair Neil Hartling.

The NDP is accusing Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski of being dishonest.

During the territorial election campaign last fall, Pasloski said he couldn’t say where he stood on the Peel plan before further public consultation.

“Without any further consultation, the plan has now been rejected,” said NDP leader Liz Hanson. “We’re at the end of a long process, and the government has decided it will no longer play by the long-established rules. It’s an insult to the First Nation governments and Yukoners who have engaged in this process in good faith.”

Seven years of planning went into producing the final plan, which the territory now wants to dramatically alter.

Yukon Party politicians took pains to say little about their position on the Peel until this week. They should have done so long ago, given that the planning commission’s own principles were drafted in 2004, said Baltgailis.

“If the Yukon government didn’t like those principles … it had plenty of time to object,” she said.

Cathers asserts the government’s proposal balances the desires of competing interests, from wilderness outfitters to miners. He accused conservationists and opposition parties of stoking a polarizing debate over the watershed’s fate.

Not so, said Baltgailis.

“Opening up the watershed to roads and industry, as the Yukon Party government wants to do, isn’t balanced.

“How are wilderness tourism operators and guide outfitters supposed to co-exist with roads and industrial development in the Peel?” she asked.

The proliferation of nearly 9,000 mineral claims in the Peel is also largely the fault of the Yukon Party government, said Dehn. That’s because the government waited several years after the planning process started before introducing a staking ban.

Most of the claims were staked after the planning process started.

The government’s plans for the Peel may “destroy confidence” in other land-use plans, such as one in the works for Dawson City, said Baltgailis. That could hurt mining exploration outfits toiling away outside of the Peel, she said.

“Arbitrary, last-minute giveaways to industry just provokes anger, protests and lawsuits. Those are all things that make investors extremely nervous.”

Baltgailis also poured cold water on the notion that the Peel Watershed contained a viable mine. “It has no economically viable deposits,” she said.

Cathers wants a plan that resembles the one prepared for the North Yukon. But the two regions are very different, said Dehn.

In the North Yukon “a good deal was already protected when the planning process began,” he said. “And the government didn’t step in in the last minute and try to completely subvert the plan.”

Dehn dismissed the argument that protecting the Peel would be just the thin edge of a wedge to ban mining in much of the territory.

“That’s a load of hogwash. I don’t think anyone believes that. The Peel is a special place. It’s one of the few remaining places where you have an entire, huge watershed that’s almost entirely undeveloped and roadless, except for the Dempster Highway.”

Cathers has indicated that protected areas would likely include areas in which the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume dump into the Peel, and the Turner Lake Wetlands. Beyond that, details remain to be seen.

Baltgailis wonders if he’s prepared to enforce a proposed closure of the Wind River Trail. She describes the Wind as “probably the most important river for wilderness tourism in the Peel Watershed” and worries the trail will become “an industrial highway.”

Baltgailis also wants to see the territory develop policies on developing uranium and coalbed methane before considering activity.

It’s important that Yukoners support protecting the Peel when the government holds its final round of community consultations this year, said Dehn.

“Yukoners are not actually polarized. Most want most of the Peel protected,” he said. “I think the Peel will be protected if everyone comes forward and demands it.”

With notes from Roxanne Stasyszyn.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com

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