The future of the Peel watershed is on the table and it's tearing the Yukon apart.
By Lauren McKeon
A documentary about the future of the Peel watershed, by Mike Thomas, photo editor and videographer at the Yukon News.
Blaine Walden’s bottom half is a canoe. Like a Greek centaur, half-man, half-horse, he’s so deft, so comfortable in the boat, it seems a natural extension of his body. Watch him manoeuvre it down the swerving, slithering Wind River, watch him lean, draw, dip and stroke, and you’ll see it, too. That’s what 20 years guiding on the six swift rivers of the Yukon’s Peel watershed did to him. A London Financial Times journalist wrote of his guide that “Walden seems as indigenous to the Peel as the eagles overhead.” It’s something about his woods-worn clothes, the craggy face, the thick braid dangling down his back, the encyclopedic knowledge of the place.
Now he’s bundled in fleece and joined by his wife Mary, who’s paddling at the front of the cargo-loaded vessel. The sky is iridescent blue, the sun is sharp, the day as crisp and clear as autumn can get. Along the red and grey pebble banks, last night’s snowfall melts quickly into delicate puddles. It’s September, they’re the only canoe on the river – the only people in the whole watershed according to the bush pilot who dropped them off.
After two weeks pouring through the hands of heavy mountains, the unfurling Wind River spits the red canoe into the wildlife-rich Peel plateau. Walden and his wife drift daily by watchful clusters of bug-eyed caribou, Dall sheep perched on a mineral lick cliff, a grizzly bear grazing on pink-tipped hedysarium and a lone bull moose crashing through willows, ready for the rut.
The Peel watershed is the size of New Brunswick, but there are no roads, no power lines, no clearcuts or mines, no development whatsoever: just branches of clear mountain rivers tumbling into the Peel River toward the Arctic ocean. It’s been called one of the last truly wild places in North America, a place where Walden attests “you really start to think about our place in the world.”
But the Peel’s not just a wild place, it’s also rife with resources: high-price minerals, oil and gas and coal. A place into which the Yukon’s already lucrative mining industry can – and some say must – expand. Unfortunately, being both those things – ecologically unique and resource rich – has proven ideologically irreconcilable. Land use planners have struggled for seven years to put together a document that would dictate the area’s future, and their latest draft, released December 2009, called for a whopping 80 per cent protection, sending the miners reeling. More than a year later, draft torn apart, the fight has escalated.
The pro-mining faction says excluding industrial activity in the Peel will convince investors it’s not just the one region closing its doors, but the whole Yukon, sending an axe blade through the heart of the territory’s prime economy. Conservationists argue the Peel is so special that to open it up to development would be a monumental disservice to humanity, and would destroy the small but growing and sustainable wilderness tourism economy. And everyone in the Yukon’s picking sides. “It’s become a polarizing issue in the territory,” says Walden. “And it’s not what any of us wanted.”
On a warm July afternoon in Whitehorse, parents gather at the sideline of a dry grass field to cheer on their kids’ soccer match. Normally, between claps and cheers, they socialize: about the weather, about work, about their summer vacation plans. But now, there’s just silence. Hellos are terse, smiles are replaced by nods and sometimes they don’t even nod at all. It’s not jersey colours that divide the field, but the Peel. Everyone knows who’s on whose side. One passionate conservationist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had his vehicle vandalized days after making a public statement. He caught the mischief-maker keying a scratch through the paint.
Nobody can forget the fight, not here on the crunchy yellow grass, not at the supermarket and not at the rowdy bars. People might have anticipated some heat when they started planning the Peel, but they certainly didn’t anticipate this.
Developing a land-use plan for the Peel isn’t a choice. In fact, it’s the last of several regulatory stipulations to be fulfilled for the land claim and self-government agreements signed in the mid 1990s. Canadian, Yukon and aboriginal governments split the territory into eight planning zones. The idea: planning commission members collect testimonials and data from everybody interested in the zone in question, from elders, hunters, biologists, geologists, tourists, you name it. After completing a please-all management plan, they’d all sign it and move on to the next zone. That’s the idea, anyway. The North Yukon, home of the remote village of Old Crow, came first. After relatively little fanfare, their land use plan was accepted in 2009. Then came the Peel.
It might have been smarter to save the Peel’s controversial 68,000 square kilometres for last, instead of moving north to south through the territory. The region, roughly 14 per cent of the Yukon, is the only planning zone without permanent human settlement or development. This allowed the boreal ecosystem to flourish: It’s home to remarkable vegetation, pristine waters from tip to tail, plus a collection of animals with national and international conservation status. The place is also crucial to three First Nations – the Na-Cho Nyak Dun, the Vuntut Gwitchin, and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in – all in support of conservation.
All this causes the Yukon’s pro-mining population to balk. Wilderness-lovers who – even now – agree that development is necessary, feel the Peel is just too unique, too much of an exception. “There have to be some unique places that have wilderness value,” says Chris Widrig, a big-game outfitter with 25 years leading hunters by horseback around the watershed. “The rest of the Yukon is pretty much home free for miners.” It’s this sentiment – mining, yes, but for heaven’s sake not in the Peel – that’s driven a wedge into the territory, especially in the capital city.
That wedge made work difficult for the six-person Peel River Watershed Planning Commission, which has been at it since 2004. After years of community consultation, research, opinion-gathering, reading letters, and receiving an unanticipated depth and breadth of response, the commission could not find a middle-ground. “Nobody,” says planner Dave Loeks, “was willing to compromise.”
If society is fundamentally in disagreement, says Yale-educated Loeks, “what you do is develop a cautious and conservative approach that preserves options.” And that’s exactly what they did. Released in December 2009, the latest draft of the plan calls for protection of 80.6 per cent of the total region – leaving only 19.4 per cent open to mineral and oil and gas development. The plan is designed as a living document. “We can always decide to develop in the future,” writes the commission in its forward, “but once this decision is made, we cannot return to the pristine ecosystem and landscape… Better, in our view, to go slow.”
It’s now up to the Peel’s two key partners – the territorial government and Peel First Nations– to review and respond to the plan. While polling research shows an overwhelming majority of Yukoners support protection in the Peel – nearly 80 per cent want more than half the zone permanently off-limits – there is clear indication that the most important partner is taking a different tack. The Yukon government manages the Peel region’s non-settlement lands – a whopping 97.3 per cent of the area – and Premier Dennis Fentie is pro-mining to a fault.
Last year, just after the draft was released, members of his party stood up in the legislative assembly to suggest charging a hefty head tax on Peel tourists to make up for lost resource revenue. And, although it shows disregard for the planning process, Fentie censored Yukon Environment’s written submission to the commission, shrinking it from a 24-page pro-conservation manifesto to a vague four-page memo. In December, the Yukon Government further deepened the dividing line when it issued a press release that, in heavy bureaucratic language, suggests the plan needs to be rewritten to allow for more mining. “The way it’s shaped up so far,” says Karen Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society, “is that it’s all of the Yukon, including the First Nations, against the Yukon government and the mining industry.”
Na-Cho Nyak Dun elder Jimmy Johnny is squinting serenely into the sun despite the shadow of his worn cowboy hat cutting across his face. As he talks, his eyebrows lift, briefly smoothing the deep crow’s feet splayed across each temple. The longtime Peel hunting guide is speaking on camera for the short film The Peel Watershed: A First Nations Perspective. “It’s a beautiful country,” he says. “Our ancestors have been out there since way, way, way, way back.” Eyebrows lift. “Since I don’t know when.” Surely, for many generations to be born there, but also to die and be buried there.
The First Nations are the least open to industrial development and are demanding 100 per cent protection. They have campaigned tirelessly and hundreds of members have spoken out to protect their ancestral watershed. “When I think about industry moving into the Peel watershed, I think about genocide,” reads one response to the commission. “We are dependent on the Peel watershed for survival. Without it, we will slowly diminish.”
Miners promise a responsibly regulated industry, but the First Nations don’t buy it. They cite the tar sands, the Gulf of Mexico spill, and here at home, the Faro mine, Canada’s most toxic mess. “To openly ask us to expose the Peel River watershed and the purity of its waters and the integrity of its land to damage that industry has not convinced us that they can handle, is unimaginable” says Na-Cho Nyak Dun chief Simon Mervyn.
So often, miners are cast as the villains. But Michael Wark is not a villain, he’s just a guy representing an industry made up of other guys, all doing their jobs. Besides, the Yukon’s as iconic for its mining – think Klondike gold rush – as it is for its wilderness.
But with the Peel, the anti-mining voice is so large and loud, the Yukon Chamber of Mines, of which Wark is executive director, feels singled out. “The implication,” says Wark, “is that our activities cannot be mitigated, as if the activities conducted by other groups are completely sustainable and don’t do any long-term harm or damage to the environment.” The wilderness tourism businesses have been given a collective pass by the public, while mining hasn’t. But, he argues, the industry is increasingly diminishing its environmental footprint. Yes, mining has a big impact, he says, but the objective is to minimize damage, and with new technology, maybe even eliminate it.
Wark is worried about what will happen if they’re shut out. “The relentless and ever-increasing alienation of land from economic activity,” he says, “will hurt the Yukon’s mining industry, the Yukon economy and the Yukon labour force to the detriment of all Yukoners.” There are a number of very important resources in the Peel, he says, most notably the Chevron-owned iron ore deposit near the Snake River. “It’s one of the top three iron ore deposits in the world,” Wark adds, enunciating each word so extravagantly you can see the italics spilling from his mouth.
There’s been a moratorium on staking in the Peel since February 2010. Talk of the ban, however, has been around since the planning process started. So, in the five years leading up to the moratorium, quartz claims inside the Peel swelled to a whopping 8,400 – more than five times the number of pre-planning claims. Some stakers were genuinely interested, but many more were just placing bets -- if the Peel closes to mining, they'll get hefty government compensation.
Wark thought the staking ban, like forbidding mining in the Peel, would have a negative effect. Give the wrong message to investors. Close the doors on mining. But the opposite has happened. The rest of the territory is simply booming. Exploration expenditures for 2010 are estimated at $157.4-million, a nearly 300 per cent increase over the past five years. More claims were staked in the month of October than all of 2009 combined.
Consider the Yukon’s newly operating mines: Minto, Bellekeno, Wolverine. And the second-wave gold rush outside Dawson City. Plus the fact that the free entry system already leaves roughly 80 per cent of the territory open to staking. Given all this, does protection of the Peel really represent a death knell for the mining industry? “The Yukon government talks about balancing industrial development, protection, tourism and cultural values,” says Baltgailis. “Well, those things are not balanced in the Yukon right now.”
Most agree the Peel holds economic promise. Miners see resource dollars, while greenies see tourism bucks. The impasse: for tourism to survive, mining must stay out.
Currently, wilderness tourism is small compared to mining; a few dozen canoe-tripping companies and hunting outfitters pull in about $4-million per year. There are only five hunting outfitters in the Peel – one for each pre-existing concession – which will stay the same unless more boundaries are drawn. But there are no limits to paddlers and hikers. The Peel’s one of the more lucrative destinations in Canada; most if not all the 40 Yukon-based river-guiding companies offer trips there– from single-staff Walden’s to tripper-central Nahanni River Adventures. But more outside outfits, like Black Feather and Wanapetei, are Peel-bound now, too. It’s easy to see the potential for growth – the demand for wilderness tourism is expected to catapult as the world runs out of supply. But this can only happen, they say, if the Peel is protected.
Most Yukon tourism operators want to see the land-use plan go ahead as recommended. The Yukon Tourism Industry Association – who represent the whole spectrum, not just wilderness adventure – have been adamantly calling for full protection of the “Three Rivers” region: the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume (the other three, the Hart, Blackstone and Ogilvie Rivers are less popular with trippers). “We don’t think it’s unrealistic,” says TIA chair Rod Taylor. “The plan… preserves a unique, national treasure and an asset that will, if protected, be an economic asset to the Yukon for generations to come.” He thinks the government’s response to the draft is abhorrent and in a press release, daringly states, “For the government to disregard the plan because they don’t agree with its recommendations shows contempt for the planning process and the Yukoners who contributed to it.”
Outfitter Chris Widrig spends at least 100 days every year in the Peel, and has done so since 1986. All told, that’s about 2,500 days. In the past year, he’s come to see stakes and ribbons peppered along the entire 100-kilometre horse trail from the village of Mayo to the Peel boundary. Helicopters buzz a steady soundtrack. When he and his chain of pack-horses cross the moratorium line, it falls quiet. By and large, the continued success of his outfitting business depends on this silence and inactivity. “I’m operating in a pristine wilderness area,” says Widrig, “and that’s a large part of the net worth of my business.” If the Peel’s wilderness is opened to development, it won’t be the same tourism experience for his clients, and the clients might stop coming.
Like most outfitters and conservationists, Widrig wants the Yukon government to realize the Peel holds big economic potential as it is. Walden and Widrig both say wilderness is their businesses’ greatest asset. “It’s not the economy versus the environment,” says Walden. The Yukon government holds a 1950s attitude, he says, that the best use of land is always industrial development.
Truth be told, though, Widrig is more worried about the future of the Peel than he is about his business. He’ll be dead and gone in 30 years, and his cabins and horses just a memory, but he’d like to think the Peel will still be the same wild place. He recovered from a bear attack that left him blind in one eye, but this consummately tough man says he couldn’t survive losing the Peel to mining. “It would be heartbreaking,” he says. “I would just leave. I would sell my business and I would not come back.”
Many people fighting to protect the Peel – and they’re from around the world – have never even been there. They’ve seen a photo, a video, and they’ve been inspired. “People need to know that place exists in their hearts,” says Gill Cracknell, conservation campaigner for the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, “even people who have not been there or could never go there.”
Cracknell’s not one of those people. Over four summers and 16 months, she and her partner, a wildlife photographer, slowly wandered the Peel by foot and canoe. Once, they spotted a gyrfalcon nest high on a rocky pinnacle. They found a hideout where they could watch the fresh clutch, unseen, Cracknell through a telescope, her partner, through a camera. Over several days, they witnessed four chicks transforming from dandelion puffs to fledglings.
When one got a bone stuck in its throat, they agonized, watching the young bird struggle, then become a sack of skin and drooping feathers. But these things happen in nature. If the gyrfalcon chick was going to die, it was going to die and there was nothing Cracknell or her partner could do. Neither could bear it any longer, and so they left the blind and headed down to their camp in the valley, dejected. Two days later, they hiked wearily back to the top, only to discover, yes, something had happened. The chick was alive and chirping with glee. It had disgorged the near-fatal bone.