May 01, 2012
Hungry miners covet Yukon’s pristine Peel watershed wilderness
By Paul Watson Star Columnist
VANCOUVER—A mining boom that has turned Canada’s North into the country’s fastest growing economy is threatening a vast stretch of the Yukon that is one of the continent’s last unspoiled wildernesses.
Central Yukon’s Peel River watershed, a pristine region almost as big as New Brunswick, is just one of the natural treasures coveted by mining and oil and natural gas companies riding surging global commodity prices.
Demand for the mineral resources of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut is so strong, the Conference Board of Canada expects their economies to grow by an average 7 per cent in 2012 and 2013, “easily outpacing the Canadian average.”
The hunger for resources from rapidly developing countries such as China and India are combining with a warming climate and new technology to draw mining, oil and natural gas companies farther north.
That trend isn’t going to be short-lived, predicts the Conference Board, a privately funded economic and policy research agency.
“Over the past two years, new mines have reached the production stage in both territories, and more are scheduled to start up over the next decade. From 2012 to 2025, mining’s share of the Yukon and Nunavut economies will double.”
After decades of struggling to thrive, the territories’ governments, and many of their people, are eager to cash in on the resource bonanza.
But opponents insist the environment is too fragile, and the economic benefits too limited, to justify the inevitable damage to nature.
A major front line in their escalating battle over Canada’s North is the Peel watershed, a rare North American gem, most of which aboriginal leaders and conservationists are determined to keep away from miners and drillers.
The Peel watershed is drained by seven major rivers that run untamed through mountain ranges and lush valleys where nature has been left largely to her own since the dawn of time.
For some 67,000 stunning square kilometres, there are no parks or marked trails, no campgrounds or RV hookups, only isolated hunting camps, and the wild plants and animals that live in one of Canada’s most diverse ecosystems.
Human visitors number only in the hundreds each year, mainly paddlers and hunters who venture into the remote region in canoes or on horseback and float planes.
The region is rich in iron ore, gold, uranium, zinc and other minerals as well as oil and natural gas.
Mining companies have several camps on the edge of the watershed, waiting for the green light from the Yukon’s government to rush in, clear roads and start digging.
Last summer, a six-member planning commission appointed by the government and First Nations, proposed a compromise that would permanently protect only 55 per cent of the Peel watershed.
Another 25 per cent would be conserved, with periodic reviews to decide if it should be opened up to development. Various land uses, including mining, would be allowed in the remaining 20 per cent.
It was less than what First Nations and conservationists had fought for, but they accepted the compromise. The Yukon government reserved judgment as it went into an election last fall.
In February, the Yukon’s new premier, Darrell Pasloski, a former Conservative Party candidate for the federal Parliament, announced what he called eight core principles to guide decisions on how to regulate land use in the Peel.
They include a call for “special protection for key areas,” while pledging to “manage intensity of use” and “respect the importance of all areas of the economy.”
Pasloski’s government also said it would respect private interests and final agreements with First Nations.
Along with conservation groups, leaders of the First Nations accuse the government of dumping the planning commission’s widely supported plan, forged through some seven years of study and often bitter debate.
Pasloski’s promise of more consultations is actually cover for an effort to gut the commission’s compromise, said Karen Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society.
“They are proposing to completely change the plan and open up the Peel watershed to roads and industrial development,” Baltgailis said from Whitehorse, the federal territory’s capital.
Leaders of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Vuntut Gwitchin, and the Gwich’in Tribal Council accused the Yukon government of violating the Umbrella Final Agreement, a framework for settling land claims.
“We were blindsided by these unexpected principles appearing when the plan was almost done,” Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Eddie Taylor said in a statement. “It is outside the process mandated by the umbrella final agreement for the Yukon Party government to introduce these principles so late in the process.”
Aboriginal leaders are not opposed to all industrial development and are working with mining, oil and natural gas companies in other parts of their traditional territories, Baltgailis said.
“The four affected First Nations have said repeatedly, ‘Look, we have all kinds of development in the rest of our traditional territories. This area of the Peel is really remote for industry, too expensive really for a viable mining, or oil and gas industry anyway. So we want this area to be left relatively untouched.’ ”
Environmentalists argue that most of the Peel must be left intact, and undeveloped, in order to protect a vital, but poorly understood, ecosystem that was a gateway for early humans migrating across the Siberian lands some 30,000 years ago.
The planning commission’s proposal would have done so, but the Yukon government doesn’t want to put sufficient restrictions on mining and other development to reach that goal, Baltgailis said.
“Judging by all the other comments they’ve made, what they consider key, environmentally sensitive areas would be just small,” she added. “I would imagine they’d be salt licks, or wetlands with some birds in them.
“They’d never acknowledge that it takes big, intact areas of wilderness to preserve wide-ranging wildlife habitat. They certainly have never addressed the question of how you combine industrial roads and mines with wilderness tourism.”
Yukon’s minister of energy, mines and resources, Brad Cathers, was not available for an interview Friday. His spokesman, Mark Richards, said the minister was in lengthy meetings with aboriginal leaders.
In the territory’s legislature, Cathers has maintained the government is fulfilling its obligations under First Nation final agreements and called opposing party leaders irresponsible for publicly supporting the commission’s plan.
He also claimed “the cost of implementing the commission’s proposed plan could bankrupt the territory,” which has a population of around 34,000 people, more than two-thirds of whom live in Whitehorse.
As mining, oil and natural gas companies press into more remote northern areas, their impact doesn’t stop at the drill rig or mine site.
The North’s resource boom is also increasing demand for more housing, schools, hospitals and other amenities to support thousands of workers and their families following the lure of jobs north.
“The immediate concern for the development of the mining industry in Canada’s North is not so much finding a market but rather finding the human capital to lead these projects forward,” says the Conference Board report.
“Competition for the skilled workers needed to develop and work the mines is heating up, as other regions of Canada are also benefiting from the mining boom and have several projects proposed over the next decade.”
Roads and structures to support the mining boom are being built on permafrost. They could collapse into swampland if, as many scientists predict, the climate continues to warm and vast swathes of permafrost melt.
Lloyd’s of London, the world’s biggest insurance market, recently warned that Arctic nations rushing to drill for oil and natural gas in the Far North are courting environmental disaster.
Estimating the Arctic will see $100 billion in new investment over the next decade, Lloyds cautioned that cleaning up any oil spills would present “multiple obstacles.”
Many experts go further and say offshore oil spills would be impossible to contain and clean up in the often stormy Arctic, especially after a blowout in winter, when most of the Arctic’s waters are covered in ice.
Russia has begun Arctic offshore drilling in areas plagued by icebergs and hurricane-force storms. The U.S. government says Shell can begin drilling off Alaska this summer, in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas bordering Canada’s Far North.
So pressure is building on Canada to join the race for new fossil fuel sources and allow drilling in its Arctic waters.
And the fight with aboriginal people, environmentalists and other opponents over the North’s future would heat up even more.