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Industrial development now permitted in portion of Yukon’s Peel Watershed

Mining and oil and gas projects allowed in area comprising 17 per cent of the vast watershed but with strict limits on surface disturbances

WHITEHORSE — Mineral staking in the Peel Watershed was off-limits for nearly a decade, but now industrial development is permitted in a portion of wilderness home to four First Nations.

The Yukon government approved an order in council this week that guides how development is to go ahead. 

Mining, roads and oil and gas projects are allowed in one parcel, representing 17 per cent (11,573 square kilometres) of the total land mass. 

Last summer, Yukon governments, including First Nations, inked the Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan, which protects most of the watershed. Simon Mervyn, chief of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, said it would “resound through the ages.” 

The signing came after First Nations and environmental organizations brought the Yukon government to court over how much land should be off-limits to development. The saga ended up in the Supreme Court of Canada in 2017, with the court ruling in favour of the First Nations. 

What Does The Peel Watershed Ruling Mean for the Yukon – and Canada?

The order in council marks the first action toward implementation of the plan. 

Jerome McIntyre, director of the land planning branch of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, said miners have recently submitted notices for exploration work in the parcel of land. Miners interested in developing a claim must submit a notice to the government before they can move ahead with any work, after which a 25-day review period begins. 

 The five governments that oversee the implementation of the plan — four First Nations and the Yukon government — must reach a consensus to give the greenlight on exploration. If an area has heritage or cultural values, for instance, a project could be denied.

Lewis Rifkind, a mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society, said information on stipulations set out for the region is limited, particularly on the question of where certain types of industrial projects are permitted. He wants to know how standards will be implemented.

 According to a Yukon government news release, all activity is to be “monitored and limits to cumulative impacts established and enforced.”

Rifkind, who’s called on the Yukon government for more information, said it’s unclear under what legislation mineral development will take place and what enforcement measures will be in place.

“The devil’s in the details,” he said.

Since 2011, there have been no new mineral claims in the Peel Watershed, which spans 67,431 square kilometres. Staking was withdrawn at that time, McIntyre said, noting that mining activity, among other things, was accepted when the land use plan began development in 2004. There were 530 quartz claims that year, along with 525 iron-mica leases.

“It was an area where you could do business,” said McIntyre, referring to the Peel at large, adding that the number of claims grew while the plan was being worked on, plateauing in 2008.

Eighty-three per cent of the Peel is designated conservation land. The order in council limits staking in this area to varying degrees.

Within the area designated for conservation, there are three different types of protection. Fifty-five per cent of the Peel is permanently withdrawn from staking. Another 25 per cent is designated as “wilderness areas,” which are protected on an interim basis. Three per cent of the watershed is designated to safeguard boreal caribou habitat. The parties are to review the latter two areas in 10 years. 

This level of protection is a far cry from what could have happened had the former Yukon government not been taken to the Supreme Court of Canada by First Nations and environmental organizations.

The Yukon Party, in power until 2016, wanted to open up 71 per cent of the watershed to extraction. According to the ruling, this significantly diverged from a plan submitted by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission years earlier. Only minor changes were accepted, resulting in the current plan that guides the watershed’s future.

The plan also dictates how mineral resources can be accessed. 

As of February 2019, there were 8,380 existing quartz and 525 active iron-mica claims in the watershed, the plan says. Where they are is another matter.

Existing claims in the conservation area are grandfathered in. But there are tight restrictions, making it difficult to get to them as surface access isn’t allowed. Those hoping to work these claims have to get there by air.

“That would be a significant hurdle,” McIntyre said.

Surface access is permitted in the parcel where mineral development is accepted, but there are thresholds for surface disturbances — roads and setting up camps, anything with a footprint essentially, said McIntyre, noting that up to one per cent of the area can have such activity.

“The surface disturbance would be tracked over time, and once it starts to get close to that one per cent, there’s a review that’s done by the parties to see what should be done about that.”

Roberta Joseph, chief of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation in Dawson City, said there has to be “faith in the process” moving forward — that development meets the parameters outlined in the land use plan, which, she noted, are relatively strict. 

She said all parties are moving to fully implement the plan “as soon as possible.”

“I think the First Nations, along with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, are fairly satisfied to be able to work with the Yukon government on this collaboratively,” Joseph said. “We look forward to continuing to monitor and co-manage all the activities where there’s interest, whether it’s an environmental interest or a mining interest.”

Julien Gignac is The Narwhal’s Yukon correspondent, based in Whitehorse. Of Mohawk and French descent, he has a penchant for…

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