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Commentary: Let’s give Yukon’s wetlands better care

Donald Reid & Hilary Cooke

Donald Reid & Hilary Cooke

Wildlife Conservation Society Canada

Where do Yukoners go to hunt moose, to see the widest variety of birds, to collect herbs and medicines, to experience joy in nature’s gifts? What provides a steady flow of water to the streams that are nature’s fish hatcheries, to the sources of our community drinking water, and for the irrigation of our local farms? The answer is wetlands. That’s why Yukon Government’s current opportunity to comment on its draft wetland policy, by December 3, is so important.

Wetlands are more than just shallow water and marshy edges of streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. They include bogs, fens, and swamps. If your boots are wet in the bush, you’re likely standing in a wetland.

Wetlands are generally the most productive of northern ecosystems, supporting the widest diversity of plant and animal species. Water is the essence of life for all these species and for us. Wetlands often store more carbon on an area basis than other natural systems, and are increasingly important to manage the carbon fuelling our warming climate.

Yukon still has numerous wetland ecosystems, providing us with many benefits, including in our efforts to curb the biodiversity and climate crises. The key question then is: Does the draft wetland policy insure that we will continue to experience these benefits by adequately caring for these special places? The answer is no, it doesn’t, neither in terms of protection nor careful use.

The policy tries to promote wetland protection with the concept of Wetlands of Special Importance (WSIs) – the idea that some wetlands are of such high ecological and societal value that they deserve special protection. This could be a useful concept, but the draft policy fails to give it real force.

The policy does not identify any wetlands as WSIs. This is a step backwards because, up to a few years ago, the Yukon government’s “Wetlands Technical Committee’ had a map of about 54 important wetlands on the Environment Yukon website. Some are now in protected areas, but many are not. Why doesn’t the policy acknowledge this previous work, with government taking the lead to advocate for these as WSIs?

Instead, the policy recommends a process of nomination of WSIs for review by Yukon government, but fails to provide enough information on how the process would work and actually achieve protection.

The nomination process lacks enough detail. It is not clear which boards and councils, in addition to First Nation governments, will have the authority to nominate a WSI to the Government. This section needs to, but does not, include Land Use Planning Commissions and their Final Recommended Plans. These plans are the best informed, and most democratic, processes for such designations

The draft policy provides no assurance that an approved WSI would have any legal protection. It doesn’t identify any formal recognition, under legislation such as the Environment Act or the Parks and Land Certainty Act. It doesn’t even tell us which Department of Government (and therefore Minister) will have the authority to review, approve, or delist a WSI.

Perhaps the intent is to use orders-in-council for designation? That is hardly a route to lasting protection because OICs can be established and ended at the whim of Cabinet. We need a policy that provides more secure protection for important wetlands, not one that just provides a nice-sounding title (Wetlands of Special Importance) without real substance.

Protection of WSIs does not appear to be the Government’s intent, because the draft policy (p. 10) states that “Existing authorizations and tenure will be honoured…”. This indicates that some developments (e.g., on mineral claims) could continue in WSIs, subject to environmental assessment under the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. The draft policy (p. 9) merely says that Yukon government will achieve no loss of wetland benefits in WSIs by “applying appropriate mitigation measures during regulatory review processes…’.

With regard to careful use of wetlands, the draft policy proposes that users and regulators apply sequential thinking: first try to avoid all impacts, then minimize unavoidable impacts, then reclaim impacted wetlands, then offset residual impacts (the “mitigation hierarchy”). This is essentially business-as-usual, as it is the approach followed by the environmental assessment process in Yukon.

This is a recipe for the gradual, but inevitable, loss of wetlands, as has already occurred in various parts of the territory. The document provides no information on limits or thresholds of wetland loss due to human activity beyond which further impacts are not allowed, so that some wetland functions remain. How much of a wetland type in a region can be destroyed before no more destruction is allowed? How might the term “unavoidable” be interpreted? Reclamation sounds good, but the evidence is that many wetland types cannot be restored to their former condition. Reclamation only mitigates some of the worst impacts, leaving biodiversity, carbon, and human values compromised. The draft policy leaves too much uncertainty.

Wetlands have an important role to play in the climate crisis. Huge amounts of carbon are stored in natural ecosystems, especially wetlands in the north. This is carbon that we cannot afford to release to the atmosphere. It took hundreds and often thousands of years to accumulate in the wetland vegetation and soils. If released as a result of development, it could not be re-absorbed from the atmosphere within the few decades left until we need to get to net-zero carbon budgeting.

The draft policy does not address this value of wetlands as carbon stores at all. Nor does the government’s strategy for addressing climate change (Our Clean Future). These are major failings in approach and thinking.

Nature-based climate solutions, such as wetland and forest protection, are central to global thinking about climate change, as evident at the recent international COP26 negotiations in Glasgow.

As much carbon as possible must be kept in place in our intact ecosystems. Yukon is not clearly pursuing this essential part of the solution.

On the positive side, the policy would add momentum to the systematic mapping of Yukon’s wetlands over the next 5 years. This is necessary to assess the abundance and locations of the various types of wetland so that regional planning and impact assessments have the evidence to make better decisions.

Yukon’s wetlands deserve a moratorium on new direct impacts by development activities for at least the period of time it takes to get this mapping done.

Overall, we conclude that the Draft Wetland Policy fails to achieve any lasting wetland protection, fails to provide significant new direction to wetland stewardship, and leaves a lot of uncertainty for Yukoners who care about wetlands.

We encourage folks to visit the Government’s website for engagement on new policy - - enter the wetland policy link, read the draft policy (which is relatively short), and provide your thoughts using the on-line survey.