Notes from the North

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A little good news from the Yukon.

Past articles on have highlighted the ongoing debate over land-use planning in the north-east Yukon.

This approximately 68,000 square kilometer watershed is known as the Peel Watershed and certainly deserves careful land-use planning due to the environmental, wilderness and traditional use values.

After long and careful deliberation and consultation with Yukoners the Peel Watershed Planning Commission has just issued its recommended plan.

They have recommended a plan that responds to Yukoners' desire to protect a significant amount of this unique place.

At the same time the plan allows for some development.

This is a plan that responds to the need to strike a balance between development and conservation. It does so effectively and with foresight, and an obvious understanding of the values and resources of the area.

The plan recommends Special Management Area status for about 80 per cent of the entire area.

This is a land use zone that in turn can then be converted into protected areas, wildlife management areas, wilderness preserves etc.

These Special Management Areas are the basic tool for protection in the Yukon under First Nation land claims agreements.

The remaining 20 per cent of the Peel Watershed would be designated Integrated Management Areas.

This is where industrial development would be allowed.

Now there are existing mining claims throughout the entire watershed, both in the Special Management and Integrated Management Areas.

The plan recommends allowing most of the existing mining claims to continue to exist, but would not allow road access to them.

Road access would require an amendment to the Land-Use plan which would require considerable First Nations and public consultation.

Especially sensitive areas such as the Snake River, the upper Blackstone River, the Richardson Mountains, and the Turner Lake wetlands are recommended for full wilderness protection.

Total full "Protection" status within the SMA designation is about 31 per cent of the whole area.

One of the most important recommendations is for all further mineral staking in the Special Management Areas to stop.

In the Yukon, with its antiquated free-entry system of mineral staking, this is a big progressive step forward.

In these areas it is recommended that no new roads, even winter roads, be allowed.

The plan also recommends that the Wind River Trail no longer be considered an existing legal road.

A proposed upgrade of the Wind River Trail for use as a winter road for uranium mining exploration caused huge controversy about a year ago.

It is worth noting that the plan calls for a moratorium on any and all uranium mining.

Existing mining claims and oil and gas lease areas are recognized and stay as is, but access will only be allowed by air, or through a specific plan amendment.

The plan is very explicit in its direct links to First Nation Land Claims Agreements, and therein lays its real strength.

Those who have used the land for millennia finally get a say in what happens on the land.

Of course, the Peel Watershed Land Use Plan now has to be accepted by the affected First Nation Governments and the Yukon Territorial Government.

Three affected First nations have called for full protection of the peel watershed, but it is the Yukon government that has the final decision power over the future of the vast majority of the watershed.

We will have to wait to see whether all the areas of importance to First Nations have been captured.

The Yukon Territorial Government has said that they support the work of this commission.

The first step in showing this support needs to the yukon Government declaring a legal moratorium on mineral staking in the Peel Watershed until the plan is finalized.

Let us hope the Yukon Government will respect the commission's recommendations, and engage in good faith in the process of negotiating a final plan with the affected First Nations.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist. His work centers around Yukon recycling, energy and mining issues and he is also responsible for a weekly column in one of the local newspapers.

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