Canadian land claims lawyer Thomas Berger, best known for his Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry, is heading the legal battle against the Yukon government’s new Peel watershed land use plan.
The plan for the Yukon part of the transboundary watershed was released Jan. 21, the same day the nearly four-year mineral claim staking ban expired.
Under the new plan, 71 per cent of the Peel is now open to industrial development. The rest is off limits to new staking but the mining of existing claims and building of new roads are allowed.
The Peel commission’s final recommended plan, released in 2011 and approved by First Nations, put 80 per cent of the 68,000-square km wilderness watershed under protection.
The Peel’s Aboriginal groups – the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC), Na-cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Vuntut Gwitchin – were quick to criticize the government’s unilateral approach to planning, repeating what they’ve been saying for months, namely that they’d turn to the courts to defend the co-management agreed to in their modern-day treaties.
They recruited Berger to lead the charge, beginning with a Jan. 27 news conference at Vancouver’s Mineral Exploration Roundup convention.
“We will do whatever it takes to defend the integrity of our agreements,” said Na-cho Nyak Dun Chief Ed Champion in a Jan. 22 news release.
GTC vice-president Norman Snowshoe said First Nations are not going to give up on the Peel.
“The final chapter to this story is definitely yet to be written,” he said.
The Yukon Conservation Society and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Yukon chapter had already warned resources companies to think twice before setting their sights on the Peel.
They called the government’s new plan an affront to democracy and an insult to those who participated in the Peel planning process.
Tourism organizations said the new blueprint will just create confusion among the different land users.
“Plans are supposed to create more certainty, not less,” said Neil Hartling, chair of the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon in a news release.
Even the Yukon Chamber of Mines – usually a big supporter of the conservative Yukon Party government – was a little cool.
Though it was “pleased” the government ditched the commission’s plan, it said its replacement still has too much protection and too many restrictions.
Onerous new requirements, such as air access coordination between all user-groups in the remote Wind-Bonnet Plume River area, could scare off industry, said executive director Samson Hartland.
“Essentially when you put it all together, (the watershed) is essentially protected,” Hartland said in a Jan. 23 phone interview.
Asked if a prolonged Peel battle could damage the Yukon’s reputation as a place to do business, he said only time will tell.
“It’s early days,” he said. “It’s still a moving target when it comes to what this all means.”
Interim Liberal leader Sandy Silver said it looks like the only people the Yukon government is serving with this plan is its political masters in Ottawa.
“This is not even a local plan. This is more of Stephen Harper’s agenda,” he said.
Opening the Peel is just part and parcel of Harper’s grand vision for the North – to strip its natural resources and ship them off to China, he said.
But it won’t work. The only thing the resource industry wants is certainty and pending lawsuits bring anything but, Silver said.
“So it’s still a moratorium really, when you think about it, who is going to go in there?” he said.
“Why would you spend any money in there when you know the First Nation governments are going to sue and you know that anybody who goes up into the Peel area, I mean, it’s a black mark on those companies,” he said.
There are about 8,400 active quartz mineral claims in the Peel now. Each is about 50 acres in size.
Since 2010, the government has renewed them all for free every year.
Normally claimholders need to do $100 worth of work or pay that amount in lieu.
This “relief order” expires Feb. 4. The government hasn’t said if it’s going to extend it.
In the meantime, conservation groups are organizing a “Stand up for the Peel” rally outside the Yukon legislature Jan. 29.1 comment