COMMENTARY: Trust the public with the public interest

Take land use planning seriously

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David Loeks & Katarzyna Nowak

Special to the News

Why do people love living in the Yukon? For most, it involves our appreciation, our reverence for the Yukon landscape: vast and unbroken. What sets the Yukon apart is the expansiveness and health of its wilderness.

But the Yukon government is shrinking our wilderness legacy in service to the mining industry — an entrenched recipient of massive corporate welfare. The government’s actions are harmful to the public interest, undermining of our way of life, and they may be illegal.

The government’s ongoing obstruction of land use planning initiatives, and the government’s pre-emptive authorization of large-scale industrial activities in our hinterlands are not only harmful to the long-term public interest, they are also very likely to drag Yukoners and Yukon First Nations into costly, protracted and divisive litigation for years to come. The Yukon public, in their responses to the Yukon Mineral Development Strategy, are concerned and unhappy.

Some 80 per cent of Yukoners deeply value wilderness, and have, for some time. This is the proportion of Yukoners who supported conserving the Peel Watershed through its difficult regional land use planning process. This is the proportion of Yukoners who became evident in a survey distributed by the Fish and Wildlife Management Board in their 20/20 visioning project 10 years ago. This is in part why the previous Yukon government lost its mandate in the last territorial election. The present one would do well to carefully consider the values of this overwhelming majority of Yukoners as it prepares for the coming election. The “Peel coalition” was not a temporary phenomenon.

Here is the point — worldwide, wilderness is disappearing under the onslaught of human population pressures, road building, agriculture, forestry, energy exploration and mining, and the associated conversion of land which these activities entail. Likewise, the Yukon’s wilderness land-base has steadily diminished over the past 60 years, even in the short interval since the Peel plan was approved two years ago.

Disease experts around the world are warning us that such continued rampant exploitation of the land-base is associated with spillover and outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. Here in the Yukon, the dominant threat to wilderness and to land health is mining exploration, mine development, and the associated construction of industrial access roads.

Make no mistake, friends: roads destroy wilderness. Roads divide landscapes and wildlife habitats into ever-smaller fragments until what remains will be little different from the overrun backcountry some of us may have left behind. By imposing industrial access roads, the Yukon government compromises the land use planning process, reduces connectivity between wildlife habitats and between Yukon First Nations’ Settlement lands, as well as diminishes our ability to fend off future diseases.

Take the proposed 65-kilometre ATAC Resources Ltd. all-season road project north of Keno. It would snake development deeply into the Beaver River country, considered to be vital habitat which replenishes moose populations in the more heavily hunted areas already accessible by roads. It would foreseeably become a gateway for the industrial development of the upper Stewart valley — the southern flank of the Peel watershed.

We know from long experience that as road networks expand under the demands of industry, wildlife populations dwindle, and wilderness shrinks. If it is built, some “visionary” will want to build a connection between the ATAC road and the North Canol Road.

Road building for industry perpetrates such radical and permanent social and ecological changes that you would think the Yukon people deserve to be served with better, more comprehensive and well-informed consultation opportunities by our government.

How about a chance to consider a Roadless Rule such as our Alaskan neighbors enjoy in one of their immense, unique coastal ecosystems? We deserve a seat at decision-making processes which have such profound, irreversible negative consequences in the Yukon. Isn’t this what land use planning — a powerful exercise in democracy — is designed to ensure?

Were we ever seriously informed and asked by the Yukon government whether the major mining projects at Coffee Creek, Minto, Victoria Gold, or Kudz Ze Kayah had our collective support and were good for the Yukon? Were we meaningfully engaged to comment on whether the Northern Access to Resources road (NAR) to Coffee Creek or the ATAC road are beneficial to all Yukoners and in the long-term public interest?

No, we were not. The YESAB process was not designed to do this; what YESAB tries to do is identify environmental and social concerns and ways to mitigate these: if possible, if convenient, if affordable to the corporate proponents of large-scale land exploitation initiatives. The premise is that any government-of-the-day is entitled and qualified to decide and act on our behalf.

Each temporary government caretaker makes decisions that incrementally, collectively, and permanently deplete our common heritage — the Yukon’s wilderness legacy. This very legacy distinguishes us from the rest of the world and keeps us healthy, resilient, connected to the natural world, and — for the most part — peacefully and spiritually contented.

In view of the wilderness values consistently expressed by 80 per cent of Yukon voters, the government’s industrial development pursuits are presumptuous and misguided. Their refusal to suspend mineral staking in regional planning areas for the duration of the planning process, their support of irreversible developments before planning is complete are affronts to responsible public policy development (as recently described by the now former vice-chair of the Dawson Regional Plan).

The legality of their unilateral actions is also questionable in the context of our collective rights and responsibilities under the Umbrella Final Agreement and in areas in which First Nations’ land claims are still under dispute. The Yukon government does not appear to have taken to heart the lessons delivered by the Supreme Court of Canada in Aboriginal rights jurisprudence over the past three decades.

The Beckman decision, and more recently, the Peel decision make clear that the responsibility of the Yukon government is to steward and co-manage public lands in cooperation with Yukon First Nations. This is a real imperative. Perfunctory consultation followed by independent decision-making — about industrial road construction, mining in wetlands, placing mineral interests above conservation priorities — insults the very principles of meaningful reconciliation that we are legally and morally compelled to honour.

The Yukon government would do well to sincerely ask whether any mine — or for that matter, the mining sector — actually benefits the Yukon and serves our long-term interests. This question cries out for a comprehensive, impartial, expert analysis.

In 120 years of hard-rock mining, name a mine which came to a good end (no environmental liability picked up by the taxpayer.) What have been the lasting benefits to Yukoners compared to the public subsidies in infrastructure, schools, roads, policing, depleted wildlife and contaminated ground and water, low-cost energy for mining shareholder dividends and executive benefits? Where did the profits go? The notion that mining is a “major contributor” to the Yukon’s economy may very well be misinformation.

If we accept the strongly expressed principles of Yukon First Nations — from the recent public interest hearing at which concerns over placer mining in wetlands were made by three northern nations to the Yukon Water Board, to the numerous and repeated Kaska submissions to YESAB on the Kudz Ze Kayah mine — we will do well to also stand up and say, “Enough.”

In the requirements of co-management, Yukon First Nations have an extremely powerful tool to wield in the face of new road and mine proposals. The Peel court case, like a string of failed litigation before it, was a costly legal debacle for the Yukon government.

There is a better way. We can collectively consider development decisions — effective land use planning is the best tool we have for this. While planning commissions are not decision bodies, they can reveal the public’s interest in how the Yukon landscape deserves to be cared for. A conservation-based economy is possible; in truth, it is necessary.

As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said, “May tomorrow be more than just another name for today.”

David Loeks is a former Chairman of the Peel Watershed Regional Planning Commission and Dr. Katarzyna Nowak is a Yukon-based conservation scientist with international experience. Views expressed are their own.

Planning

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