Commentary: The Peel deserves 80 per cent permanent protection

CPAWS Yukon in asking for 80 per cent of the land to be given permanent protected

Chris Rider

Land use planning for the Peel watershed was supposed to be simple. Here was an area, large and remote, that contained no permanent structures. No one expected that it would take so long to get to this point but finally, fifteen years after the process started, we are in the last round of public consultations. Yukoners can now share their thoughts on the final recommended plan, a document originally released in 2011.

The consultations are scheduled to remain open until Nov. 19 and it’s our last chance to have our say. The Peel is one of North America’s last great wilderness areas and if you believe that it deserves to be preserved for future generations, it’s crucial that you join CPAWS Yukon in asking for 80 per cent of the land to be given permanent protection.

For anyone who is unaware about Peel, or has wondered what all of the bumper stickers are referring to, it’s an area in the northeast of the Yukon that’s around the same size as Nova Scotia. It’s home to four First Nations – Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Vuntut Gwitchin and the Tetlit Gwich’in – as well as many of Yukon’s iconic animals and plants.

It’s become a world famous destination for paddlers and those seeking a wilderness adventure. And even if it’s somewhere you’re never going to have an opportunity to see with your own eyes, this vast wilderness is worthy of protection.

There is nowhere in the region in which development won’t leave a lasting impact. Indeed, the last time development occurred in the Peel, chemicals and oil barrels were left discarded, damaging the land. They were only cleaned up years later, at the taxpayers’ expense. This is something that should never be allowed to happen again.

Despite concerns about industrial development, those who wanted to see 100 per cent protection of the Peel were willing to compromise. In 2009, when the planning commission released its recommended plan – opening 20 per cent of the region to development and permanently protecting 80 per cent – we accepted it. Even with this compromise, the Yukon government requested more industrial development.

In 2011, the planning commission released its final recommended plan. Now, instead of 80 per cent permanent protection for the Peel, 25 per cent of the land was downgraded to interim, or temporary, protection. Only 55 per cent of the Peel would receive permanent protection. This is the plan we are being consulted on today.

The final recommended plan, and the change from 80 per cent permanent protection to 55 per cent permanent protection, was lost in the shuffle when Yukon Government ignored seven years of consultations and released their own plan – a plan that would have opened up 70 per cent of the region to development.

That is when we said “enough is enough” and why CPAWS Yukon partnered with the Yukon Conservation Society and the First Nations of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek H’wechin and Vuntut Gwitchin to take Yukon Government to court. The case ultimately went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In December last year, we got the news that we had won. The court deemed Yukon government’s plan illegal and ordered them to return to consultations on the final recommended plan.

With the court case concluded, CPAWS Yukon can return to the role of advocates for Yukon’s wild spaces. Yukon Government and the affected First Nations are working together to run consultations that are meaningful and they are listening to what Yukoners have to say.

That leaves organizations like CPAWS Yukon and Yukoners with an important role that we fought hard to get. Our role is to participate in a democratic process that is being run in good faith. Our role is to imagine the right outcome for the Peel and to ask for it.

CPAWS Yukon believes that through these consultations, we can leave a legacy for future generations. There are limits to the changes that can be made, but there is one modification that we believe aligns with the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada, and that would change the plan for the better.

The 25 per cent that is designated for temporary protection spans ecologically and culturally important areas including the Hart River and the headwaters of the Ogilvie River. It is home for sheep, the Hart River caribou herd and provides safe passage to the Porcupine caribou herd on their long migration. It includes a high concentration of archaeological sites, highlighting the importance of the Peel for generations before us.

By reverting the 25 per cent interim protection to permanent protection, the Yukon Government and First Nations parties can create certainty for the Peel watershed. This certainty is critical for wilderness outfitters and for the Yukon’s booming wilderness tourism industry. This certainty is critical for the First Nations who rely on the Peel for cultural and physical nourishment. This certainty will ensure that in 10 years – and 10 years after that – our children and grandchildren won’t have to keep fighting the same battle for the Peel.

This modification can not happen unless we show that it’s important to Yukoners. That is why we are asking you to make your submission, and that you ask for 80 per cent of the Peel watershed to be given permanent protection.

Let’s finish the Peel Plan.

Chris Rider is the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon chapter

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