By Lewis Rifkind
On Sept. 2, the Yukon and Federal governments announced the Yukon Resource Gateway Project. It will provide over $360 million in combined federal and territorial funding to create new or improved road access in the Dawson Range in central Yukon and the Nahanni Range Road in southeastern Yukon. Industry will contribute an additional $108 million.
The Yukon Conservation Society understands and supports some aspects of this project, such as the Carmacks bypass, which could be a benefit to local communities. Currently, large trucks drive through Carmacks in order to access exploration projects along the Freegold Road and towards Mt. Nansen for the cleanup of that abandoned mine. The bypass would route this industrial traffic around the community making it safer for its residents.
The rest of the project seems aimed at directly benefiting private mining corporations with public money. And we are talking a lot of money: nothing comes close to the Yukon Resource Gateway Project in the 2016-17 Yukon government budget forecasts, which does not appear to mention the project at all.
The money will be spent in two ways: upgrading existing public roads and creating new public roads. The existing public roads that will be upgraded include the Nahanni Range Road, which runs from the Robert Campbell Highway to the N.W.T. border. Once over the border the road continues onto the abandoned Tungsten Mine, currently under the care of the federal government.
Along the Nahanni Range Road are numerous existing exploration projects that will no doubt take advantage of the road upgrades to move equipment in and out. That includes the 3 Aces project currently being run by Golden Predator. The wealth of Golden Predator was on display at a mining investment conference recently held in Toronto this September. The Yukon premier proudly displayed a gold bar one assumes was produced by this company, supposedly worth $1 million. No word yet on how much in royalties the company paid to the Yukon for that gold, or how much funding will go to support the road this company will make use of and benefit from.
Should the Selwyn project on the N.W.T.-Yukon border, halfway between the Nahinni Range Road and the North Canol Highway, ever proceed, the Chinese state-owned company that currently owns it will make full use of and benefit from the upgraded Nahanni Range Road.
The Nahanni Range Road is an existing road, and it is deemed an existing public highway although there are no Yukon communities along it. By improving this road there are going to be many marginal exploration projects that will now start spur roads of their own to access their mineral properties.
This will make it so much easier for hunters from all over the region to access previously difficult-to-get-at areas. The wildlife in the region is going to be severely impacted. Hunting, traffic and disturbance in general will reduce the quality of life for wildlife (leaving aside the numbers that will be killed), resulting in lower birth rates and calf survival, and caribou in particular will be alienated from swathes of their range.
Moving to the central Yukon, creating new mining roads on the taxpayers’ dime in the Dawson Range is completely inexcusable from an environmental and economic perspective.
Extending the road system past the Freegold region to the Casino Mine project is indefensible. Contemplating a connector from the Casino Mine to the Coffee Gold area is irresponsible. No matter what one thinks of the Coffee Gold project, at least they had the sense to choose a route south of Dawson using the existing placer mining road grid. The environmental impacts of such a route are less than the Casino Mine route.
The proposed Casino Mine route cuts through the heart of the Klaza Caribou herd grounds. This very scenario was examined in a report published by the Yukon’s Department of Environment in 2016. One of the key objectives from this report is to “maintain a large, intact part of the Klaza herd winter range in a condition relatively undisturbed by human development and activities.” Woodland Caribou herds like the Klaza have been shown to avoid roads and mines. A public highway that enables massive mine expansion would seem to be the antithesis of the stated objective.
It is understood that many details of the Yukon Resource Gateway Project have yet to be released, including exact routing of some of the new roads. Also yet to be understood is how the environmental assessment process will apply, and how mining projects currently undergoing environmental assessment will be affected. Some of these projects had included privately funded and designed road access, which would now appear to be superseded by the new roads.
Proclaiming that roads will be inserted into areas of the Yukon before adequate land use planning and community consultation have taken place means that environmental considerations have not been taken into account. This is unacceptable. It will threaten entire interconnected ecosystems, from caribou herds to fish habitat.
The huge amount of public money being spent on roads that will directly benefit large mining corporations could be a massive lost opportunity for the Yukon. Imagine if these funds were spent differently.
Yukon desperately needs to develop in ways that support communities and minimize environmental damage. We need to create energy efficiency and renewable energy programs that provide local jobs while helping the Yukon become less reliant on fossil fuels.
YCS believes that public money should be invested in projects that help Yukoners adapt to climate change, reduce our contribution to climate change, increase our resilience and energy security, and diversify the economy. These roads-to-resources projects do none of these.
Spending so much cash on resource roads for large mining companies shows a lack of environmental awareness by those who initiated this project and by those who are carrying it forward.
The Yukon Conservation Society takes the position that without adequate land use planning and public consultation the Yukon Resource Gateway Project presents a clear and present danger to the Yukon’s environment.
Lewis Rifkind is a mining analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society.