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COMMENTARY: Government was right to say ‘no’ to the ATAC road

Resource projects can’t expect to move forward if they don’t respect proper processes

Randi Newton

Special to the News

Late last month, the Yukon government rejected an application by ATAC Resources to build a 65-kilometre mineral exploration road through the roadless Beaver River Watershed. The road would have led to ATAC’s 185-km span of mining claims, perched between Keno and the Peel Watershed, in the Traditional Territory of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun.

I am fortunate to have paddled through the heart of this special area twice. The Beaver River Watershed holds a richness of life: crystal blue waters marked by red Chinook salmon, watchful eagles perched overhead and wolf pups scurrying along the shoreline. I have no doubts of the impacts the road would have brought to this area.

ATAC doesn’t agree with the government’s decision and is assessing options with its lawyers. The company even released a statement questioning whether the Yukon ‘is in fact open for business.’ The reality is that ATAC’s approach left the Yukon government with no choice but to say no.

The company did not address many serious concerns with the road, seemingly grew impatient, and then tried to sidestep a land use planning process that had been put in place because of the road proposal. What this decision really means is that the best and only way forward for resource development is to respect proper processes and to work with First Nations in a meaningful way.

A long list of impacts were identified when the project went to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB) in 2016. The Department of Environment warned that new road access, and the cascade of industrial development likely to follow, would harm moose, grizzlies, fish, and other wildlife, and negatively impact hunting and trapping. They indicated that moose populations would be at particular risk, as harvest in the management unit is already above sustainable levels. The department concluded that the ATAC road carried “a high risk of significant and immitigable impacts.”

Given the project’s potential to degrade the watershed, in 2018 the Yukon government and the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun agreed that a land use plan in the Beaver River Watershed had to be completed before approval of road construction would be considered. This process was meant to give Na-Cho Nyäk Dun citizens and Yukoners the opportunity to try to resolve concerns with the road.

At the time, ATAC appeared committed to respecting that process. Their website even made it clear the company understood road approval was conditional, “pending a land use plan for the Beaver River”. In 2019, midway through the consultations, ATAC made the decision to walk away from the plan, and attempt to get the road approved through the back door. Mention of the land use plan was recently scrubbed from their website.

The application they submitted to the Yukon government attempted to tack the road on to their exploration permit and have the road approved as an amendment. The word “amendment” typically means “minor change” and this road, about the length of the highway between Whitehorse and Carcross, is anything but. ATAC tweaked a few short sections of the road alignment to skirt past the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun Settlement Land, but the overall impacts and route remained the same. It seems like a clear attempt to circumvent the land use planning process.

This is the application that was recently denied by the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, and for good reasons. Despite cries otherwise, nothing about the decision should have been a surprise to ATAC or those in the industry. The decision was clear cut under the Quartz Mining Land Use Regulation, which states that project applications must show how serious impacts to treaty rights and environmental and socio-cultural values will be mitigated. The regulator made it clear that ATAC failed to do so.

For one, the decision document notes that permitting an exploration road of that length — 65 km — is “unprecedented” and that no new roads over 50 km had been authorized in the last decade. Remember, the application is for a road to an exploration project, not an active mine. Approving it would be risking severe consequences for a project that might not even pan out.

The potential for damage with this project was high and ATAC’s application didn’t adequately address it. A litany of unresolved issues are noted in the decision document, ranging from inadequate baseline data to unaddressed cumulative impacts on wildlife and traditional ways of life and insufficient tools to manage these impacts.

The decision document also notes the application didn’t address the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun’s concerns that the road would have significant adverse impacts on their Aboriginal and treaty rights, alter an untouched part of their traditional territory, and alienate people from the land.

While ATAC has argued it needs the road to advance its claims, regulators do not owe the company a road. The company is working in a jurisdiction where significant impacts have to be addressed before projects are authorized. ATAC’s application failed to do so. Regulators wouldn’t be doing their job if they allowed projects to move forward without regard for damage to Yukon’s ecological and cultural values, or impacts on Aboriginal and treaty rights.

Hopefully this signals an expected way forward for doing business in the Yukon, where success is measured by the quality of relationships with local people and by securing the long-term health of the land, as well as long-term prosperity.

Responsible industry actors should stand by this Yukon government decision. It signals the importance of government following through on its commitments, including to land use planning and reconciliation. Sidestepping an established land-use planning process has not ended well for anyone in the past. Last month’s decision demonstrated that the Yukon is open for business, but not at any cost, and only to those who can work here in a respectful way.

Randi Newton is the conservation manager for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Yukon Chapter (CPAWS Yukon).

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