New twists and turns: the ongoing dance for protection of the Peel Watershed


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Donald Reid
Emeritus Scientist

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Conservation planning Mountains

Published

2014-03-05

The campaign for conservation of the Peel watershed in northern Yukon has recently shifted from the courts of public and political opinion to the courts of law.

The campaign for conservation of the Peel watershed in northern Yukon has recently shifted from the courts of public and political opinion to the courts of law. Across Canada, and especially in Yukon, the justice system is increasingly being asked to rule on controversies over environmental concerns and aboriginal rights and title. The fight for the future of this large and magnificently wild boreal landscape is now in the hands of the lawyers and judges.

WCS Canada is particularly interested in the Peel because the watershed’s 67,000 square kilometres encompass one of the last truly wilderness regions with intact predator-prey populations in Canada’s boreal mountains. From 2006 to 2009 I led a team of biologists assembling what was known of the Peel’s wonderful ecological and wildlife values in a Conservation Priorities Assessment for the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. This Commission was charged with developing a land use plan for the Peel watershed taking into consideration all its resource values and, in particular, the interests and values of the 4 Yukon First Nations whose traditional territories overlap the watershed.

Conservation of ecosystems at these northern and relatively unproductive latitudes requires big spaces and intact watersheds. Sustainable populations of caribou and grizzly bears cover huge areas in their seasonal travels. Whitefish and grayling move hundreds of kilometres between spawning and wintering habitats. True conservation would require large protected areas encompassing whole watersheds.

The four First Nations (Tetlit Gwich’in, Vuntut Gwich’in, Nacho Nyak Dun, and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in) hold a similar vision for the region’s future: large-scale protection to conserve the wildlife, water and fish on which they rely and which sustain many of their cultural traditions. As Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in chief Eddie Taylor puts it, the Peel watershed is also his people’s church: sacred ground for spiritual sustenance.

The campaign to protect the Peel began in earnest in the 1990s led by the Yukon chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society under Juri Peepre, who just this year was recognized as a member of the Order of Canada. CPAWS raised the Peel’s profile internationally, nationally and territorially. They told the public about the region’s ecological values in books, movies and talks. They took artists on trips to express the beauty and civilizing influence of this wilderness. They helped the First Nations’ communities crystallize their voices.

The Peel Commission heard these opinions and voices, along with that of our Conservation Assessment report and those of the mineral and petroleum industries, which have exploratory claims and licences across the region. In their Final Recommended Plan of December 2011 they proposed full protection (no roads or access to existing mineral claims) of 55% of the land base in large watershed units, interim protection of another 25% in wilderness areas, restricting potential industrial development to 20% of the land base. First Nations and conservationists agreed to this approach even though it protected less than the 100% they had sought.

The Yukon Party government appeared non-committal at first, and did not take a firm stand on the Recommended Plan through the May 2012 territorial election. However, soon after they had won another mandate in that election, they unilaterally rejected the Commission’s Final Recommended Plan, and set up a new planning and decision process. The government developed four new land use scenarios, all ceding much more land to industrial interests and offering far less protection than the Commission's Final Recommended Plan. They then led a series of public consultations around the Yukon starting in December 2012. Public support for Commission’s Plan, and not the government scenarios, was very evident in print and voice media and in paid advertising by individual citizens. However, any quantitative results of this public input to the formal consultation process were not available to Yukoners until a formal information request forced the government to release the results in late 2013: 82% to 94% in favour of the Commission’s Final Recommended Plan depending on medium of response.
Nevertheless, the Yukon Party government continued on its course, choosing in January of this year to release its final plan for the Peel: the second-most favourable to industry of its 4 scenarios. This Yukon government plan states that 29% of the land base will be protected. As a conservation scientist who was intimately involved in the analysis of conservation options in the region, it is my opinion is that this will not offer real protection to the Peel Watershed's many irreplaceable values because new roads will be allowed to reach and work on existing mineral claims in these areas, and the protected zones are often relatively small in total size and do not cover entire river valleys . The plan places 44% of the land in Restricted Use Wilderness Areas, a moniker that suggests protection. However, wilderness is not an accurate description, because roads will be allowed and both existing and new mineral claims will be operational up to a surface disturbance of 0.2% of the region at any one time. More intensive industrial activity will be allowed in the remaining 27% of the watershed.

So what does the future hold? The Yukon government is proceeding as though its 2014 Plan is the way forward. However, all four First Nations who were Parties to the Peel Planning Commission process have publicly rejected the Yukon government’s plan. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Nacho Nyak Dun have joined with two conservation groups, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Yukon Conservation Society, to sue the Yukon Government. The Tetlit Gwich’in will do the same in their own legal action. What is the basis and intent of these actions?

When First Nations settled their land claims in Yukon they were only allowed title on up to 8.5% of the land base. They gave up their title to the rest of the land base (about 91.5% still as public lands in the Peel) under the conditions of the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA), and the specific assumption that the land use planning process detailed in Chapter 11 of the UFA would be followed. They believed that the Yukon territorial government would act in the collaborative intent of the UFA, would follow the terms of reference provided to the Peel Commission (which very explicitly refer to the need to accommodate the values and interests of Yukon First Nations), and would seek a consensus outcome to the well-prescribed process outlined in the UFA. In the words of former Nacho Nyak Dun chief, Simon Mervyn, the First Nations were “blindsided” by the Yukon government unilaterally establishing a whole new planning process after the Commission’s Recommended Plan was on the table. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Nacho Nyak Dun have stated their belief that the Yukon government’s approach was illegal, because it was outside the prescribed process for developing a land use plan, and ignored the First Nations’ interests. Former Justice Thomas Berger agrees, and will argue their legal case in the Yukon Supreme Court. The very existence of land use planning in Yukon, constitutionally mandated by the UFA, is at stake.

The Tetlit Gwich’in people live in the Northwest Territories though much of the Peel drainage is in their traditional territory and they frequently travel and harvest in the Peel. They have a Transboundary Agreement regarding joint jurisdiction over their traditional territory in Yukon, and have suggested that the Yukon government has illegally ignored provisions of that Agreement. On that basis they will also take the Yukon government to court over the Peel.

Through these twists and turns the Peel debate has become one of respect for democracy as much as respect for environmental values. The Yukon territorial government appears to have taken a stand that was not recommended by the majority of Yukoners. Their stand definitely contradicts the recommendations of the First Nations governments who are supposed to be equal partners in land use planning. Their stand certainly contradicts the Commission set up to provide advice and direction. It will be particularly sad if they are found to have contravened the processes prescribed by constitutionally mandated land claims settlements. However, there is still real hope for serious conservation and protection in the Peel, whether through the impending legal judgements or through a future change in the political direction of the Yukon.

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