The Government of Yukon released a final land use plan for the Peel River Watershed region Jan. 21, sparking sharp criticism in recent weeks from the major stakeholders in the agreement and at least one appeal.
In unveiling the plan, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski touted the “balanced approach” the government took to protect the natural environment while respecting all sectors of the territory’s economy.
Roughly the size of Ireland, the Peel River Watershed sprawls over 77,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) of mountainous terrain situated at the northern end of the Rocky and Mackenzie Mountains chain. Though about 10 percent of the watershed lies across the border in Northwest Territories, some 68,000 square kilometers (26,248 square miles) is situated in Yukon, directly north and west of more populous central areas of the territory near Whitehorse, Dawson and other smaller communities.
Hailed by conservationists as one of the largest intact natural ecosystems left in North America, the Peel Watershed drains about 14 percent of Yukon’s land mass.
The regional land use plan for the area applies to non-settlement lands, which cover more than 97 percent of the region. It attempts to balance protection for the most sensitive areas of the Peel Watershed with providing opportunities for economic activities.
The plan separates the Peel’s public lands into three types of areas – Protected, Restricted Use Wilderness Areas and Integrated Management Areas – with designations that allow for active management of lands and resources, while ensuring sound environmental stewardship, according to Yukon officials.
Among the plan’s protections:
Some 19,800 square kilometers of the region is permanently protected, bringing to nearly 17 percent the total protected area of Yukon, more than anywhere else in Canada.
Five rivers – the Wind, Bonnet Plume, Snake, Hart and Peel – are within protected areas of the watershed and will be designated as new “Wild River Parks.”
Only 0.2 percent of land can be disturbed in Restricted Use Wilderness Areas, which cover 44 percent of the watershed. This leaves 99.8 percent of the land surface in the RUWAs undisturbed at any one time.
First Nation subsistence harvesting activities and treaty rights are recognized and respected.
Among the plan’s economic opportunities:
About 70 percent of the region is open to exploration and commercial opportunities.
• Protection of viewscapes along river corridors provides benefits for tourism ventures.
• Restricted Use Wilderness Areas (RUWAs) will have regulated surface access, air access coordination, notification for low-level (Class 1) mineral exploration and regulated off-road vehicle access.
• Integrated Management Areas allow access to natural resources, with sustainable resource development.
Protected Areas make up 29 percent of the Peel region, while the remaining public land in the region is divided, with 44 percent designated as RUWAs, which allow for low levels of carefully managed land-use activity, and 27 percent designated as Integrated Management Areas, where most land-use activities may occur. In the latter two types of areas, mineral staking and proposed commercial activities will be subject to enhanced regulatory and permit processes.
The Yukon government also replaced the temporary mineral claim-staking withdrawal with a permanent staking withdrawal in the Protected Areas, as outlined in the land use plan. Staking is now permitted in 71 percent of the Peel Watershed region.
Departure from recommendationsCritics of the Peel land-use plan say the Yukon government largely rejected recommendations from the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, which asked that 80 percent of the watershed region be protected as conservation areas.
The planning commission spent more than five years talking to First Nations and the public before releasing its recommendations. It called for as much as 80 percent of the region to be withdrawn from any industrial development, including mineral staking.
Commission members included First Nation groups and Yukon Government nominees. The commission handed its recommendations to the Yukon government in March 2013.
The Nacho Nyak Dun, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon and the Yukon Conservation Society filed a lawsuit Jan. 27 in Yukon Supreme Court, charging the Yukon government with violating land claims signed with First Nations in its land use plan for the Peel River watershed.
Leaders of the First Nations said the suit does not reflect hostility between aboriginal people and miners in Yukon. Rather, it show the reverence the groups feel for the Peel region
“We do not want to see mining in the Peel watershed,” said Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Eddie Taylor. “To us that land is sacred and should be preserved for future generations. As our elders say, the Peel is our church, our university and our breadbasket.”
The Government of Yukon Feb 18 filed a statement of defense before the court, denying all allegations and seeking dismissal of the lawsuit.
Miners dismayed by new restrictionsYukon’s mining community also has expressed significant concerns about provisions of the new plan for land use in the Peel Watershed region.
Samson Hartland, executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines, said mining companies in Yukon were pleased to see the government made some modifications to the plan recommended by the commission a year ago.
However, the industry is very concerned about some provisions of the final version, he told Mining News Feb. 17.
“At same time, you have to realize that ‘the devil is in the details’,” he said. “The restrictions imposed by the government render many projects uneconomic, though they are not technically off-limits. With 29 percent of the region in a fully conservation area, and another 44 percent placed in Restricted Use Wilderness Areas, it makes it very difficult for a company to carry out a project.”
Hartland said the host of new restrictions means miners must cope with extra layers of requirements on top of the territory’s already stringent regulations.
“Anybody in the industry understands how rigorous the requirements for access is. Now to have additional requirements in another layer added on top of that is not a positive development,” he said. “Extra provisions such as winter-only access and not being allowed to go in to work during whitewater rafting season – you can get pretty bogged down in details,” he said.
The government’s plan also has exacerbated the industry’s concern about diminishing access to remote areas for mineral exploration.
“The plan increased total protected areas in Yukon to 17 percent, which by the government’s own admission is the highest percentage in Canada,” Hartland observed.
“It’s important to get people to start putting things in perspective, to try to get people to agree on what level of protection is reasonable,” he explained. “The trajectory we’re on is to have 40-50 percent of our land in protected areas, and I’m not sure people are aware of that. I think it’s important to have that discussion. It’s a concern.”
On the heels of finalizing the Peel region plan, the Yukon government released a notice seeking comment on a proposal for the Dawson Land Use Region, the third of five regions in the territory where land use is being planned
“Going from the announcement of the Peel plan right into seeking comment on another plan” is difficult for stakeholders who are still trying to understand the implications of the Peel decisions.
One miner’s frustrationMining companies already pursuing projects in the Peel region, meanwhile, had their existing claims grandfathered-in and permitted for development by the government.
Tarsis Resources Ltd., for example, holds 90 claims along Goz Creek in the southeast part of the region about 180 kilometers north of Mayo.
Under the new land use plan, the claims now lie in a protected area of the Peel Watershed.
While Tarsis can still work the claims, company officials say the “protected” designation is confusing and could make raising funds in the market for further exploration and development at the least, difficult, and potentially impossible.
Tarsis President and CEO Marc Blythe, P. Eng., said his company is asking the Yukon government to create a buffer zone around the claims that would make room for any potential development.
“We’re not exactly happy with how (the plan) turned out; to have a protected area all around us certainly restricts our ability to work on those claims going forward,” Blythe told Mining News.
“Trying to put some sort of access through a restricted area is going to be very, very difficult to permit; there’ll certainly be a lot of opposition I would imagine from environmental groups,” he said.
Blythe said he is particularly worried about the popular perception of the label, “protected,” for the area where the Goz Creek claims are located. He believes the perception could make it impossible for the effectively operate in the area.
Blythe said he gets frustrated when he hears people talk about the Peel Watershed being a pristine area, when more than C$100 million of minerals exploration have been completed in the region.
“If the region is still pristine after C$100 million of mining exploration, then I think that demonstrates how responsible the mining industry has been when operating in these areas,” he said.
Goz Creek is a high-grade zinc-silver deposit with a historic resource estimate dating from exploration in the 1970s.
Tarsis has spent more than C$1 million on exploration on the project since 2008 and the previous operator spent a couple million.
“So that’s at least C$3 million to C$4 million that has been invested in that project. We’re invested in those claims, and if they want us out of there, they need to give us compensation,” Blythe said. “Those claims have been mined since 1973, and I think it’s unreasonable to put such restrictions on the area. It’s not as if we are looking for something. We already have a resource there.”
Moreover, the Yukon has “really stringent mining regulations, and I see no reason that industry and the government can’t continue to work together,” he said.
Industry also enjoys a strong working relationship with 11 of the Yukon’s 14 First Nations, including those with traditional territories in the Peel Watershed.
Back in 2008 when Tarsis first began an exploration program at Goz Creek, company officials consulted the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation, which considers the area where the 90 Goz Creek claims are located its traditional territory, Blythe said.
“We made a presentation to the chief and the community about our plans, and they were on board with them. We met with Chief Simon Mervyn on several occasions since, and they were fine with the work that we were doing,” Blythe said.
Despite the land-use permit it holds for Goz Creek, Tarsis would be unlikely to invest more money in the project going forward “when it looks as if we won’t be allowed to operate there,” Blythe said. “We would hope we could reach some agreement with the government.”
Yukon officials say the government has no intention of adjusting the Peel land use plan.
They note that other projects in Canada that have been developed in protected areas, including the Myra Falls zinc mine located in the Strathcona-Westmin Provincial Park in B.C.
Though the plan allows Tarsis to carry out exploration plans and ultimately to develop a mine, Yukon officials acknowledge that the Goz Creek project would certainly be held to a high environmental standard and would likely be more in the public eye than a project located outside a protected area.