Will Canada Frack Up Another Pristine Wilderness?

Activists are challenging a plan to open the vast Peel River Watershed to mining and drilling.

Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

A battle is brewing in the Peel River Watershed of Yukon, where the territorial government earlier this year laid the groundwork for unprecedented development and resource extraction in that iconic wilderness.

The government’s plan would protect just 29 percent of the Peel River. But the leaders of two First Nations communities and two local environmental organizations recently filed a lawsuit to try to preserve the 42,000-square-mile swath of craggy mountains and green river valleys that funnel into the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic.

“You’re so far from anywhere, and then maybe you’ll see a wolverine run by or a moose and calves surrounded by a pack of wolves,” said Gill Cracknell, executive director of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon, who has spent months at a time hiking and camping in the Peel River Watershed. “You can paddle 550 kilometers without seeing a road or a bridge, and you can drink that water. We need to keep it that way.”

The government’s representative in the dispute is Currie Dixon. His title raises eyebrows in the conservation and First Nation communities; he serves as both the environmental minister and the economic development minister for Yukon. “Well, of course it’s absurd,” said Karen Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society. “Clearly there’s a conflict of interest, and we know which portfolio takes precedence with this government.”

Dixon sees no conflict of interest. “My job is to promote sustainable development and economic diversity,” he said. “We need to have an economy, but we need it to develop in a way that is responsible to the environment.”

The lawsuit argues that the Yukon government violated the Canadian Constitution when it sidestepped the consensus reached through a seven-year planning process that included consultation with the First Nations people, who consider the Peel River Watershed their spiritual and ancestral home. The original plan would have protected 80 percent of the Peel River Watershed from industrial development.

Dixon argues the revised plan would still preserve a vast amount of land—nearly 17 percent more land would be protected in Yukon than in any other Canadian province. “This is a dramatic increase in protected area,” he said.

That’s a through-the-looking-glass perspective, say critics. “Seventy percent of the Yukon is open to roads and mining under this plan,” said Cracknell. “Is that what we want? Once there are roads there, we can’t go back.”

The wilderness has tremendous fossil fuel potential—mostly in natural gas that could be extracted from a shale formation.

Chief Ed Champion of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun has made it clear that the First Nations communities that hold traditional land in the Peel River Watershed are not categorically opposed to resource extraction. Many First Nations people are employed by the mining companies. “We support the mining industry in principle as long as the activity is done to the highest standards,” said Champion. “Some areas, though, are better off without it.”

Dixon’s plan opens nearly half of the Peel River Watershed to “very limited development” under a designation the government calls “restricted use wilderness zones.” Here the government would track “total surface disturbance” and limit it to a total of 0.2 percent of the area.

Does this mean that roads could be built, say, next to the pristine Wind, Snake, or Hart Rivers? “Within the river corridors themselves the intent is to protect the visual integrity,” noted Dixon. “There could be activity in that area, but we would try to manage it in a way that respects the visual integrity of the river corridor.”

Wilderness is essentially a conceptual designation, and this one could include roads and mines. “Any time you punch an all-weather road up a river valley, you can’t tell that doesn’t lead to environmental degradation,” said Baltgailis.

The conservation and First Nations communities may have an ace up their sleeve though. Octogenarian aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger will argue on their behalf before the Yukon Supreme Court in early July. “All our rights and way of life are sitting in Thomas’ hands,” said Chief Eddie Taylor of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in.  “That area has been our university, our church, and our breadbasket.”

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