Whitehorse Star February 15, Yukon government has broken a spell of silence on the Peel


Whse Star, By Nadine Sander-Green on February 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm

The Yukon government has broken a spell of silence and come up with a set of eight guiding principles for planning the Peel watershed.

The principles are an attempt to support special protection for “key areas” rather than prohibit use and access, Environment Minister Currie Dixon said in a news release yesterday.

The government received the planning commission’s final plan last July — which recommends, again, that 80 per cent of the watershed be protected — and has been tightlipped ever since.

Various Yukon Party MLAs have said they can’t say whether they support the plan until the planning process is over.

Both media and the four affected First Nations received the principles yesterday.

They range from respecting private interests by not expropriating existing mineral claims and providing “reasonable surface access”, to respecting First Nations’ final agreements.

Brad Cathers, the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, told the Star yesterday these principles will help Yukoners ‘”find common ground”, a phrase Premier Darrell Pasloski repeated throughout last fall’s election campaign.

The principles will be used to modify the Peel plan before it goes through the last round of public consultation this spring.

The Yukon Conservation Society (YCS) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon Chapter (CPAWS) are calling the principles an attempt to hijack the land-use planning process and open the Peel to industrial development.

“Yukoners should be concerned about the honesty of the government.” Karen Baltgailis, YCS’s executive director, told the Star this morning.

Baltgailis said the government was vague with its concerns with the recommended plan last February, was silent on the issue during the territorial election and is only now saying it wants to open the area up to development.

“They were asked point blank during the election, and just sidestepped the issue,” she said.

Cathers stressed the principles do not solidify anything, and are only there to help guide the plan’s modification and the upcoming rounds of public consultation.

The principles are: special protection for key areas, manage intensity of use, respect the First Nations final agreements, respect the importance of all sectors of the economy, respect private interests, active management, future looking and practical and affordable.

Cathers was hesitant to get into the details of the principles.

He stressed there will be areas allocated for parks and special management areas in the watershed, but specifics as to exactly where and how much won’t be solidified until the government releases the final plan, which Cathers hopes will happen before September.

The minister said the government believes most Yukoners actually want the same thing when it comes to the Peel.

“At this point, we’re not assuming people won’t be able to work together to find common ground,” Cathers said.

“Our hope is to agree with First Nations on the final plan, and for the plan to be the best that it can be.”

The government discussed the new principles with the four affected First Nations shortly before issuing a statement yesterday. The Star has not yet heard the reaction from any of aboriginal governments.

All four First Nations said last July although they would prefer 100 per cent conservation, they could agree to 80 per cent in the name of co-operation.

Cathers was unclear as to whether the government would go forward with the principles should the First Nations disagree with them.

Baltgailis is particularly concerned about the special protection for “key areas” of the Peel. She said that’s throwing out years of hard work by the Peel planning commission. The final plan sets aside 55 per cent of the watershed as protected areas. Another 25 per cent of the region is assigned interim protection which can be developed in the future, while the remaining 20 per cent of the region is open to development.

We all know preserving “key areas”, Baltgailis continued, means preserving “postage stamp” size areas.

She is also concerned about the principle which says there will be no expropriation of existing claims and provisions will be made for reasonable surface access.

Having roads in the watershed isn’t respecting the private interests of outfitters and wilderness tourism operators who rely on pristine wilderness for business, she continued.

“Ironically, their balanced approach throws out conservation and is clearly and simply supporting mining and industry,” said Baltgailis. “You can’t call that balance.”

Michael Kokiw, a spokesperson for the Yukon Chamber of Mines, told the Star today the chamber respects the government’s process and can’t comment on specifics until it’s over.

He said the chamber respects the balance of environmental protection with society’s needs for the economic and social benefit of mineral exploration and development.

It’s still unknown when exactly — other than sometime this spring— the last round of public consultations will begin or what they will look like.

Cathers said officials from all governments have to meet to decide on those details.