A coalition of First Nations and conservation groups are suing the Yukon government over a controversial new land-use plan for the Peel River watershed. The Nacho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nations joined with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Yukon Conservation Society to file a lawsuit in the Yukon Supreme Court on January 27.
The lawsuit is part of growing opposition facing the Yukon government over the development plan released on January 21. The plan would see major portions of one of North America’s largest remaining wilderness areas opened to industrial development.
Critics claim that the government plan violates land claims treaties signed with First Nations groups and endangers a pristine wilderness ecosystem host to a diverse range of plant and animal species.
Located at the northern end of the Rocky and Mackenzie Mountain Chain, the Peel River Watershed features wetlands, river valleys, forest and tundra untouched by industrial development. Over seven times the size of Yellowstone National Park, the Peel Watershed is home to large populations of caribou, sheep, moose, wolves, wolverines and grizzlies.
Protests against the new land-use plan were held across the Yukon and N.W.T. on Wednesday, demanding that the government respect both land claims treaties and the recommendations of an earlier plan produced after an intensive seven-year research and consultation process.
“The 2011 plan was developed by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, a body mandated under Yukon land claims treaties,” explained Yukon Conservation Society Executive Director Karen Baltgailis in an interview. The Planning Commission had worked together with representatives of government and First Nations groups to carefully assess the potential impacts of development in the region.
In a significant change of course, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski’s new plan rejects the Planning Commission’s recommendations, dramatically increasing the amount of land to be opened for resource development.
Overlooking the Hart River, one of the rivers recommended for protection under the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. Photo by Juri Peepre for protectpeel.ca.
According to Gill Cracknell, Executive Director of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon, the key difference between the two plans is the amount of land in the Peel region to be opened for mining. The Planning Commission had recommended that 20% of the watershed be designated for new mineral claim staking. But under Premier Pasloski’s plan, that number skyrockets to 71%.
“The government’s plan is not science-based, it’s industry-based,” said Cracknell. “It gives lip service to the needs of the wilderness tourism industry and ignores the science behind large-scale protection.”
The Planning Commission report recommended that 55% of the Peel Watershed region be designated as a special management area, putting it under permanent protection from mining and oil and gas exploration. Under the new government plan, only 29% is set aside as a protected area, and the ambiguous language of the plan leaves the door open to future development.
David Suzuki at a viewpoint above the Hart River. Photo by Marten Berkman for protectpeel.ca.
Noted Canadian aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger will represent the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Yukon government. “It’s a lawsuit nobody wanted to bring,” said Berger at a press conference in Vancouver. “But the government of the Yukon has forced these plaintiffs to go to court not only in defense of First Nations right and environmental values in Yukon, but also to uphold principles entrenched in the Constitution.”
Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski responded to the lawsuit in an interview on Thursday, but had little to say about the specific details of the land-use plan, or what prompted the government to unilaterally reject the earlier, inclusive planning process with First Nations.
"We truly are leading not only the country, but in a lot of respects leading the world on this, and that's why sometimes you have opportunities where there is disagreement and that resorts to going to the courts to create that certainty," he said.
Image Credit: Juri Peepre