Most Yukoners support widespread protection of the Peel River Watershed from mining and fossil fuel development, according to a new poll.
Seventy-eight per cent of Yukon residents want more than half the Peel Watershed – a mountainous and pristine 70,000-square-kilometre wilderness – protected from industrial development, according to a DataPath Systems poll commissioned by local environmental and tourism groups.
And 55 per cent want from three-quarters to the entirety of the Peel Watershed protected from development.
Only 19 per cent oppose any large protection.
“This is the first statistically accurate information that’s been produced on what Yukoners want to see,” said Mike Dehn, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Yukon Chapter, one of the poll’s commissioners.
Only 12 per cent of Yukoners believe mineral and fossil-fuel development should be a priority in the Peel, says the poll.
DataPath surveyed people in all major Yukon communities, said Donna Larsen, a partner in DataPath.
In all, 508 responded to the poll and the margin of error on the data is plus or minus 4.3 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The poll was weighted to accurately reflect the proper proportion of gender, age and community groupings in the Yukon, she said.
The poll shed light on the public’s opinions on the Peel Watershed, a region coveted by environmentalists and resource-extraction companies.
There’s been a 500-per-cent increase in mining claims in the Peel Watershed region since the land-use planning process began in 2004.
Fifty-eight per cent of Yukoners want all the mining claims in a Peel Watershed protected area removed, but only pre-2004 claims should be compensated by the government, the poll says.
Mining industry supporters have defended those claims at the many public houses held by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, the arm’s-length land-use panel that is currently working on a final land-use plan draft.
The new poll debunks mining industry assertions that protection is only wanted by special interest groups and First Nations, who are hijacking the process.
“We have to govern our country by this rule of law,” Carl Schulze, the Chamber of Mines president, said in an April interview. “We can’t govern by values because it could be anybody’s values, or any one group of persons’ values or any one single ethnic group or single interest group or something,”
In a major blow to miners, the poll suggests the Yukon public widely supports environmental and First Nations values in the watershed.
Even the mining and fossil fuel industry is split on the Peel.
Fifty-nine per cent of those surveyed, who identified themselves as working in the oil, gas and mining industry (as executives, contractors or employees), support protecting a large chunk of the Peel.
Yukoners aren’t buying the mining industry’s defence that exploration and road work can be done without impacting the delicate ecosystems in the Peel, Dehn told a news conference Thursday.
Forty-one per cent want new roads banned from the Peel, and another 50 per cent don’t want any roads near the Peel’s seven major river corridors or important wildlife areas, the poll says.
Seventy-two per cent of Yukoners believe roads have a major impact on the environment. Seventy-seven per cent believe roads will open the door to more mineral and oil and gas exploration, countering industry claims that exploration can be low-key and green.
Schulze, who has led the charge against heavy protection during the five-year contentious debate over the Peel, argued that, while most people support protection, there’s a portion of that population that may want a heavily regulated and impact-mitigating mining industry working in the Peel as well.
“That could also be included,” said Schulze. “It doesn’t necessarily mean exclusion of industry.”
A petition sponsored by the Chamber of Mines earlier this summer found more than 1,000 people who wanted mining industry interests to continue unfettered in the Peel, said Schulze.
“That’s certainly not a poll, per se, because you don’t get a percentage,” he said. “But it does show that there is a large segment of the population along with stakeholders that would like to see that continue.”
But if the poll is accurate, it means more than 16,000 Yukoners want most of the Peel protected from mining.
“That’s true,” said Schulze.
But the poll suffered from an accidental bias because it was conducted in July, said Schulze.
“That’s the time of year that the number of people who would be pro-development would be at their minimum because a lot of them would be in the field or on projects,” he said.
DataPath tested the survey’s questions with a focus group to see if the poll appeared biased in favour of environmental protection, said Larsen.
The pollster ended the survey by asking who the receiver thought the poll’s sponsors were.
Forty-six per cent felt an environmental group sponsored the poll, while 25 per cent pegged a political party behind it and only 10 per cent felt it commissioned by a mining or oil and gas company.
“These findings confirm the study is accurate and unbiased,” says the poll’s report.
The Peel became the focus of political controversy earlier this summer when it was revealed Premier Dennis Fentie suppressed a pro-conservation document the Environment Department was preparing to send to the Peel Watershed Planning Commission.
Environment Minister Elaine Taylor wouldn’t say what impact this poll will have on the government’s handling of the Peel land-use plan.
The planning commission is scheduled to deliver it’s final plan to the government and First Nation governments at the end of November.
“Government policy is delineated by meeting our obligations under the Umbrella Final Agreement,” said Taylor. “I feel that the commission will be taking into consideration all views.”
The hand’s off approach was about respecting “the integrity of the process,” said Taylor.
But still, she wouldn’t comment on whether the poll will affect how the government evaluates the commission’s final draft plan.
The last plan the commission proposed protected around 55 per cent of the Peel Watershed with varying degrees of development permitted in parts of the protected area.
Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell was also reluctant to speak directly to DataPath’s findings.
“I’m sure the Peel Watershed Planning Commission will use this along with everything else in their recommendations,” said Mitchell.
“Unlike the premier’s activities, we’re going to wait for those final recommendations before we say what we think should be happening,” he said.
The public’s view in the poll should be incorporated into the final Peel plan, said New Democratic Party Leader Todd Hardy in a release.
“I strongly feel the government has no option but to ensure that critical areas of the Peel Watershed are protected,” Hardy was quoted in the release. He could not be reached for comment.
Ninety per cent of those polled felt environmental policy will affect their vote in the next Yukon election.
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