Free entry, fair play and Canada's far north

The Peel River watershed is a vast expanse of wilderness in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

It flows from the stunning Werneke mountains -- a northern extension of the Canadian Rockies -- north through the heart of the Yukon, crossing the border into the Northwest Territories, joining the Mackenzie River and eventually feeding the Beaufort Sea.

A haven for wildlife

It is a haven for migratory woodland and barren ground caribou, boreal songbirds and waterfowl.  It is among the northern limit of Canada’s largest ecosystem -- the boreal forest and is a valuable contributor to this largest terrestrial carbon bank account on the planet.

Humans find solace here as well, along the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume Rivers, one of the largest, roadless, wilderness ecosystems remaining in Canada and the world. These three rivers, combined with three additional sister tributaries, are the headwaters of the Peel River system, as they all flow north into it.

The Peel Watershed is part of the traditional territory, and home to, the Nacho Nyak Dun, Tetlit Gwich’in Tr’ondek Hwech’in and the Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nations. They traversed its river valleys and mountain ranges for generations through a network of travel and trade routes.

But there is something driving a stake through the heart of this land.

That something is the Yukon Territory’s free entry system for mineral exploration.

Thousands of mining claims

Essentially, it assumes mining is the first and best use of land, and all other interests and concerns are subordinate to this. In the past four years over 8000 new mining claims have been staked in the Peel Watershed.  The claims are not all next to each other, but scattered throughout the land. This means their ecological footprint is vast.

Now a staked claim does not necessarily end up being a mine, but the mere act of staking is done on the presumption each could be. Thus the known surface values are all sacrificed for the uncertain possibility of unknown and unverified buried mineral potential. All other land values are bulldozed away because mining is deemed the best possible use of any and all land.

It is recognized that minerals and mineral wealth can benefit society. But mining interests should not override all other land uses.

The Yukon Government has been funding a long-term plan for the Peel Watershed to the tune of $1.4 million. The Peel Watershed Planning Commission is the body deemed with this responsibility, but this process is occurring at the same time mineral staking is being allowed.

Boom and bust mining trumps all other land uses

As anyone with a valid claim can mine, the land-use plan and the money associated with it could end up being pointless because under the free-entry system in the Yukon mining overrides all other land uses.

Given the collapse of equity markets and commodity prices, boom and bust industries like mining are not going to be big economic generators in the Yukon for quite some time. Considering the cost to taxpayers of cleaning up the mess left behind by some resource extraction companies, the net economic benefit of these operations becomes even more questionable.

The North is covered with expensive clean ups of abandoned mining operations being paid for by Canadian taxpayers. And yet, boom and bust industries that have the potential to leave the same kind of expensive clean-up legacies are being proposed to the Peel land use planning process.

The Yukon Government has prepared pages and pages of a Resource Assessment Report for the Peel Watershed Planning Commission that are filled with mining development scenarios that have a very flimsy economic basis. The cost of transporting products from this remote location to markets would be enormous and no one is taking this into consideration. The investment in pipeline and road infrastructure alone would be colossal.

Not only are these proposals more of the same old boom and bust fantasies; they put at risk the existing, viable industries of tourism, including outfitting, that are already established and have tremendous growth potential.

Tourism at risk

The Yukon Tourism Sector Strategy and Business Plan, 2008 estimates that tourism’s share of the Yukon’s GDP is 4.4 per cent. According to the Yukon Government’s Economic Development branch, the GDP contribution from mining and fossil fuel extraction only came in at about 3.6 per cent in 2008.

When one compares periods of high activity and low activity in the mining sector one finds that both GDP and the number of jobs in the Yukon continue to increase through low periods of mining activity. GDP and employment keep growing even when the mining sector is considerably down and even though government subsidies to the industry continue at a high level. Tourism has been and continues to be a consistent, steady source of income over long periods of time.

People visit the Yukon from around the world to experience our most valuable asset -- our vast, wild places. This wilderness asset continues to pay off over time.

When tourism is well managed it doesn’t create negative, long term impacts to the land, and allows for the majority of existing land uses, including hunting, trapping, guiding, First Nations traditional use and recreation to prosper. Whether it’s group bus tours or individuals paddling remote, wild rivers and hiking endless mountain ranges, people come year after year even during economic downturns. With good land use planning this sustainable economy can be maintained.

Mining has a valid role to play in the Yukon’s economy. But it must be recognized it is not a consistent economic driver and it is not sustainable. It has to be zoned and regulated in ways that ensure it doesn’t impact the Yukon’s sustainable economies.

Free staking threatens future

Society also now recognizes the importance and value of wild landscapes. The Peel Watershed is 65,000 square kilometers of wild rivers, mountains and animals, one of the last large places left like this on the planet.

The free entry staking system is predetermining a destructive future for 14 per cent of the Yukon. We must ensure there is adequate room for conservation outcomes in the land use plan. Four of the Peel Watershed’s six watersheds require protection in their entirety.

The Yukon government and land use planning staff need to hear this message from the public, of whom they have a responsibility to listen to.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist. His work centres around Yukon recycling, energy and mining issues and he is also responsible for a weekly column in one of the local newspapers. When he is not winter camping or summer hiking, he collects stamps and spoils his two cats.

Theresa Gulliver is an advocate of protecting Yukon's Wild places. She resides in Whitehorse where she also practices bodywork and yoga. She visited the magnificent Peel Watershed several times to experience its austere wilderness first hand.

Visit www.cpaws.org/peel to use your voice and your power for the future of our wild places.

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