By Paul Watson / The Toronto Star
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.
Read more from The Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1162051–hungry-miners-covet-yukon-s-pristine-peel-watershed-wilderness