The Peel River Watershed is a vast and undisturbed wilderness area in the northern Yukon Territory of Canada spread over a whopping 26,000 square miles — larger than the state of West Virginia. It is the northern tip of a major wildlife corridor stretching from Yellowstone to Yukon and is home to several rare and threatened species such as the grizzly bear, wolverine, and woodland caribou. This pristine, largely unroaded region, that includes some of Canada’s largest glaciers, boreal forests, wetlands, and wide expanses of tundra, is now under threat.
Photo by Juri Peepre/Protect Peel
In January, the government of Yukon unilaterally decided to open up 71 percent of the land to mining claims, ignoring the recommendations of a massive seven-year land use planning study by the the Peel Planning Commission.
In response, the First Nations of Nacho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, whose lives are intricately tied to these wildlands, as well as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Yukon Chapter (CPAWS Yukon) and the Yukon Conservation Society, have filed a lawsuit against the ruling Yukon Party government. The suit claims that the government move violates the provisions of a land claims treaty it had signed with First Nations that requires the 80 percent of the watershed are be kept wild.
“This is a lawsuit that nobody wanted to bring,” says Thomas Berger, Officer of the Order of Canada, Queens Counsel, in a press release. “But the Yukon Government has forced these plaintiffs to go to court not only in defense of First Nations and environmental values in Yukon, but also to uphold principles entrenched in the Constitution.”
The Yukon is governed differently than in other Canadian provinces and is subject to something called the “Umbrella Final Agreement” between the Canadian government, the Yukon administration, and the Council of Yukon First Nations. It isn't quite as easy to toss aside an extensive and encompassing land-use planning process.
“Since 1993, when the Yukon First Nations, Canada, and Yukon signed the Umbrella Final Land Claims Agreement, its provisions have formed the basis of land use planning in the Yukon. Those provisions are entrenched in the Constitution; they protect the rights of First Nations and all Yukoners,” says Berger. “Yukon Government’s plan discards the years of work by the Peel Planning Commission as well as the views of Yukoners.”
Nacho Nyak Dun Chief Ed Champion says the Yukon administration can’t make such last minute changes. “The Government of Yukon had seven years to provide input into the planning process while the Peel Commission was developing its Final Recommended Plan,” he says, “Our Land Claims Agreement does not allow the Government to introduce a new plan at the end of the process. We will do whatever it takes to defend the integrity of our Agreements.”
The Peel Watershed Planning Commission was set up in 2004 to develop a plan for the watershed in consultation with the four First Nations in the affected area as well as the citizens of the Yukon. Based on years of research and extensive consultation, the Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan was agreed upon and published in July 2011.
The plan recommended permanent protection to 55 per cent of the watershed in northeaster Yukon be protected and about 20 percent of the area be under “integrated management” where some industry and roads would be allowed.
"We felt that was a compromise we could accept," says Gill Cracknell, executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
Instead, the government new plan protects only 29 per cent of the area. And even within that area it wants to allow development of existing mineral claims. Under its plan, another 44 per cent of the watershed would be open to restricted use and 27 per cent open to most land use activities and development.
According to public consultation results, the vast majority of Yukoners who took part in public meetings and online surveys supported 100 per cent protection for the Peel Watershed.
During the 2011 elections in Yukon, the Yukon Party was the only party that wouldn't reveal its position on the Peel Commission's recommended plan, says Cracknell. All other parties had supported the plan. "The Yukon Party said they wanted more balance," says Cracknell. "Their version of balance is not what anybody understands as balance. Seventy-one per cent open to mineral claims staking is not balance."
The government, however, seems to think it is well within its rights regarding taking the decision to open up most of the wilderness area to development. It won the 2011 elections by a majority and as a result Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski, seems to think that it can push through its vision for the Peel Watershed. (Of course, critics point out that although the Yukon Party won a majority of seats, it did so with just 40 per cent of the popular vote.)
"The land use plan for the Peel Watershed represents a balanced approach for this important region," Premier Pasloski said in a news release trumpeting the government's plan last month. "The approval of the plan fulfills our commitment to follow the process outlined in the Umbrella Final Agreement and deliver a land use plan that balances protection of our natural environment while respecting all sectors of our economy."
Not too surprisingly, the mining industry isn’t all pleased with the news. It wants even more.
"The Peel region is also home to major mineral deposits that have the potential to drive Yukon's economy for generations to come," the industry said in a press release. "This potential has now been compromised. For example, although the Goz Creek zinc deposit has a defined mineral resource and is high grade, it has been placed within a protected area. The Plan increases the amount of full protection to close to 17% of Yukon's total land mass. This is the highest level of protection in Canada, and is a continued erosion of Yukon's accessible mineral potential."
As of now, the territory is open for business. New protected areas in the Peel watershed area amount to a meager 7645 square miles, 29 per cent of the region.
Protests are ongoing, including marches and demonstrations in downtown Whitehores organized by Yukon Conservation Society. The government has less than two weeks to respond to the lawsuit, and once they do, a trial date will be set. CPAWS-Yukon has set up a legal fund for the fight to protect the Peel.