COMMENTARY: Land use planning must include industry

Carl Schulze

Special to the News

This commentary is a response to the commentary, “Trust the public with the public interest,” published last month in the Yukon News.

The Yukon Prospectors Association finds the opinion piece in the Nov. 25 edition of the Yukon News to be misleading, biased in favour of protection, and lacking even a basic understanding of regulatory and permitting regimes in Yukon. The land-use initiatives described exclude any industrial uses. We feel it’s time to set the record straight, and inject some solid facts countering the misinformation concerning Yukon’s quartz and placer mining and exploration industry.

The Yukon government is indeed tasked with administering land use planning processes throughout Yukon, although the actual land use planning commissions are at arm’s length. It is a difficult task, which necessarily seeks to balance all interests in Yukon, including industrial interests, with other land uses, such as tourism and traditional activities. In order to administer a fair process, it must rely on factual data pertaining to all activities, and remain objective.

The Nov. 25 commentary states that Yukon is set apart from the rest of the world by the “expansiveness and health of its wilderness”, and then goes on to say that its land-base “has steadily diminished over the past 60 years”. Although these statements are contradictory, the former is much closer to the truth. However, the land base available for mineral exploration now stands at less than 50 per cent, and has been steadily diminishing since the early 1990s.

To be fair, a considerable amount of the Yukon is covered by quartz and placer mining claims, guaranteeing the mineral rights to the claim holders. However, very little staked land has undergone or will undergo significant disturbance, and any mining and exploration footprints must be reclaimed. It takes a large amount of land to find a very small number of mines. To our knowledge, no one has ever staked a claim in Yukon simply to get government compensation.

The permitting and regulatory processes, although complicated, are fairly clear to proponents or anyone who wishes to research them. Presently Class 1 “notification” (a de-facto permit) exists for all low-impact, entry-level activities throughout the entire Yukon. Proponents must put forth a proposal, including a reclamation plan, which is reviewed by the Yukon Government and the applicable First Nation(s). Although these are described as “notifications”, these can be refused, have restrictions applied, or have the review timelines extended.

Programs involving potentially more significant disturbance, such as road building, require an actual permit. In this case, under the Yukon Environment and Socioeconomic Assessment Act (YESAA), all project proposals, including proposed reclamation, must be submitted to the Yukon Environment and Socioeconomic Board (YESAB) which makes recommendations as to whether the project should proceed, proceed with conditions, or not proceed. It does indeed identify environmental and socio-economic concerns, but does so regardless of whether these are “possible, convenient or affordable” to the proponents, whom are more commonly small exploration companies, local contracting firms, or individual Yukoners. The Nov. 25 opinion piece suggests YESAB conducts its reviews at the whim of the proponent.

The process also includes a 14-day “seeking views and information” period, extended if necessary, where proposals can be commented on by any member of the public. These are advertised, and available to anyone, anywhere. Following this, YESAB forms its recommendations and submits the proposal to the decision body (the Government of Yukon), which can “accept, reject or modify”. The decision body does actually reject proposals; the proposed road by ATAC Resources has just been rejected. The final decision document then goes to the applicable permitting department for final review, and, if passed, the permit is issued.

Major exploration and mining projects require complex reclamation and closure plans, as well as post-closure monitoring, together with a security bond to cover reclamation expenses. The bond is returned upon successful completion of reclamation.

All Canadian public companies hoping to be listed on any securities exchange require a “listing Property of Merit.” This requires a technical report in accordance with “National Instrument 43-101” (NI 43-101), familiar to any professional explorationist but surprisingly absent in any discussions with government and certainly with the environmental associations. NI 43-101s are also required if a company gains a significant property or undergoes a “material change”. This document is highly comprehensive, very particular, and quite lengthy, and includes sections on environmental liabilities. NI 43-101s for advanced projects and mines require comprehensive sections on environmental remediation, socio-economic engagement, reclamation and closure plans, as well as studies on economic viability. It can be a challenge getting these passed by the highly stringent securities regulators. This instrument, in place since 2001, does not appear to be acknowledged during land use planning processes.

The most egregious section concerns whether “any mine – or for that matter, the mining sector” actually benefits the Yukon. Of course, it does. We won’t bother with the need for actual metals, including those for clean energy infrastructure – that’s too obvious to elaborate on. But the economic benefits to Yukoners, particularly those in the private sector, is striking. These come in the form of corporate taxes, royalties, income taxes, GST, etc., not just from direct mining operations but also from the supply chains that sustain them, and the spending of wages in Yukon communities. The wages sustain many families, including First Nation families. Much of the “tourism” revenue actually arise from mining and exploration, as mining personnel, including Yukoners, utilize Yukon’s hospitality and accommodation services. In 2020, with COVID-19 raging, the mining sector was responsible for keeping many of these services alive.

It is true that access roads and other infrastructure may be subsidized, but usually with the view that the investment will be more than compensated by mining-related taxes, etc.

Make no mistake, friends: mining is necessary to ensure Yukon’s economy doesn’t become completely reliant on the largesse of Canadian taxpayers. We support tourism, but Yukon can’t rely on it alone (other than the aforementioned government subsidy). COVID-19 has shown that. With the 2020 federal deficit now conservatively estimated at $381.6 billion, and $120 billion in 2021, Yukon would do well to consider that Ottawa’s taps just might be a little tighter in the future. A “conservation-based economy” is possible only with increased funding from Ottawa.

For land use planning to become fair and objective it must incorporate geological and mineralogical data, as well as full recognition and understanding of regulatory processes. It must also incorporate data from fish and wildlife, flora, traditional land use practices and traditional knowledge. But to suggest that land use planning is a de-facto exercise to shut out industrial activities would be devastating for many private-sector Yukoners who require a solid paycheque to ensure a decent standard of living for their families.

Carl Schulze is the director of the Yukon Prospectors Association. The association is described on its website as a “clear voice for Yukon prospectors and for those who work in Yukon’s mineral exploration industry.”