PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Published January 24, 2014
Canada's Yukon Territory announced on Tuesday that it has opened one of the largest unbroken wilderness areas in North America to mining and mineral exploration.
The government's decree stunned indigenous leaders, who support a 2011 plan developed under Yukon land claims treaties that would have maintained the wilderness character of 80 percent of the area, which is known as the Peel watershed region. The government's new plan all but reverses that figure, opening some 71 percent of the watershed to mining.
The Yukon features some of Canada's highest peaks and largest glaciers, as well as tremendous expanses of lake-dotted tundra, boreal forests, and wetlands. (See "Yukon: Canada's Wild West" in the February issue of National Geographic magazine.) It's also rich in wildlife, with extreme seasonal shifts that beckon vast herds of caribou and other animals into motion. Larger than California but with only 37,000 inhabitants, the territory has been mostly empty of humans since the Klondike Stampede ended in the 1890s.
In recent years a new gold rush has brought a spike in population and prosperity to towns like Whitehorse and Dawson. But the rush to exploit the Yukon's minerals—which also include zinc, copper, iron, and uranium—has unearthed growing tensions between government and mining interests on the one hand, and conservation and indigenous First Nations interests on the other.
Peel Compromise of 2011
Among the territory's wildest quarters is the Peel watershed, a pristine, almost completely roadless wilderness that drains an area larger than Scotland.
"The Peel watershed is one of the few places left where you still have large, intact predator-prey ecosystems," says Karen Baltgailis of the Yukon Conservation Society. "From wolves and grizzlies and eagles on down, it's a wildlife habitat of global importance."
The Yukon's Peel First Nations have signed land claims agreements with the territorial and federal governments. The agreements, which lay out the procedure for land use planning, are embedded in Canada's constitution. "We spent seven years on a well-formed and democratic public planning process," says David Loeks, Peel Watershed Planning Commission chair.
Initially, First Nations leaders wanted the entire 26,000-square-mile (67,000-square-kilometer) Peel region to be off-limits to miners. "Every trickle of water that runs into the Peel watershed should be protected," said Jimmy Johnny, an elder in the Na-cho Nyak Dun nation. "Taking care of that area is a traditional value. [It's the source of] our food, our fruit, our traditional medicine. It's very important, not only for our future generations but for everybody."
The planning commission reached a compromise that would allow 20 percent of the area to be staked and mined. "Nobody got everything they asked for," says Loeks, "but we expected the agreement to be honored."
New Government, New Rules?
In the fall of 2011, elections brought the Yukon Party, which is heavily supported by mining interests, into power. Currie Dixon, a member of the Yukon Legislative Assembly who serves as Minister of Environment and Minister of Economic Development, said, "The vast majority of my colleagues and I indicated we weren't comfortable with the plan. The commission's process wasn't flawed, but the product produced by the commission was. And since we won a majority government, we felt a mandate to proceed in a manner that was the correct one."
The government's new plan sets aside only 29 percent of the Peel region as "protected lands." It prohibits new claim-staking in these areas, but allows miners to build roads to reach and develop existing mineral claims.
"How can they even call them 'protected lands,'" asks Baltgailis, "when the plan allows mines and all-weather roads for industrial development right along rivers that are major tourism destinations? Given that most of the Yukon is already open for development, do they not see the need to protect some large, last great wilderness areas?"
"We don't feel it would be responsible to take [most of the Peel region] off the table for any mining activities at all," says Dixon. "Yukon protects more land base than any other province or territory in Canada. And that 29 percent is more than two Yellowstones."
First Nations and conservation groups contend that the government has violated the land claims treaties, and they plan a legal battle. Thomas Berger, one of Canada's most renowned aboriginal rights lawyer, announced today that he will represent them.
"The government is not entitled to say, 'All that consultation was interesting, but it really means nothing and we're still allowed to do whatever we want to do,'" says Berger. "They can't open up the whole thing again."
Dixon disagrees, noting that the new plan officially opened the Peel region for development immediately following the government's announcement. "It came into effect," says Dixon, "at 12:01 on January 22."
Everyone should stop buying crap they don't need and we won't have to mine as much...new iphones every 6months, 5000sqr ft houses for 2 people, a new car every 5 yrs... most mined products remain in circulation in buildings, cars etc. only 7% of mined materials can be/are being recycled because most are still in use.... As an environmental engineer I see first hand how making change boils right down to the people who demand the product at a very cheap rate....i don't agree with whats happening here but people should take a little responsibility. Its a consumer world and we as the consumers have the ability to make a change.
This article reflects only part of the story. Going back in time this area was to be considered as part of an overall process for a very large area.. The process was then hijacked by some of the special interest groups (obviously not the mining interests). The government is going back to the original intention of considering it as an overall process, not a carte blanche full withdrawal.
I'm happy to see that part of the original basis was, sort of, included in your article (see 4th last paragraph)
Mining and mineral exploration are integral for our world. Nobody reading this email could do so without minerals.The balance we need to seek does not mean whole scale withdrawal of areas like the Peel.
PS Who reading this has been to the Peel? Hmmmm, that tells us most are speaking from a shaky basis, or at least something less than first hand knowledge.
Harper and his big Bunsen cronies might open this up but guaranteed: Mulcair and the NDP will protect it for the Canadian people with severe regulations!
Resource development everywhere on earth, which ultimately benefits everyone, should be pursued everywhere it makes sense. And it most makes sense to do it close to transportation routes to markets. the non-sensical indigenous claims are a pathetic remnant of the past. the most recent studies have shown that all natives in the Americas are related to 75 individuals who crossed the Bering Strait about 12 to14,000 years ago. Of the many thousands now related by DNA fragments very few lived in the Yukon for any length of time and the few that think they can stop progress against Democratic will are blind to the ongoing geological ferment that is our Earth. It is not a living thing, it is a mass of complex chemistry which we have learned to utilize to produce food, shelter, transportation and progress. Want pretty pictures? Read National Geographic. Want modern things? Promote mining. Want forests? Plant trees.
As someone who lives in the Yukon territory, has spent over 6 months as a wrangler in the Peel River Watershed, and has been fighting our government from selling this international treasure to industry for short term profit for over 2 years, I can tell you that the battle to protect the Peel is far from over. The best thing that can happen is more people becoming aware of what is happening even if it is in the 11th hour. The truth is over 80% of Yukoners are against the government plans based on statistics and submissions in a separate round of consultations done BY the Yukon Party. http://www.yukon-news.com/news/government-hid-peel-numbers-from-public/ The undemocratic incredulity of what the Yukon Government is doing is beyond belief. We can't let them get away with this, too much is at stake.
Anything you guys can do will help. The battle for one of the largest untouched wildernesses left on Earth is being fought by a handful of people, help us by getting involved.
Sign and share these petitions:
Speak out, get creative, get involved because this matters. Stand up for democracy, for decency, and for what's left of the planet. Help us do what is right. #wewantjustice
"Ownership" of the land is at the base of the problem. Someone called 'queenie' had sometime declared all of Canada as their 'own' personal "inalienable right"..How can someone be so vain as to believe anything other than what the "Originals" already knew. Sharing and socialism are the right and caring way for all things on the earth, which is of course what most US wars strive to prevent. Chile, Argentina, Iran ... you know the list. The majority need to unite with the natives against the corporatist elitist system.
As long as we live under corporatism, kingdom and class system the 1 or 2 % will rule.
"We are all connected. Whatever befalls the earth, befall the son's of earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand on it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. - Chief Seattle
No, no, no. Having lived in the north for 5 years I am definitely not a fan of developing any areas north of 60. It takes forever for the environment to recover and we need to keep these areas as protected as possible. Can't we keep any part of the earth untouched? Why must we let big money always destroy things so that they can make even more money? Come on people, enough already, lets keep parts of this earth untouched and all natural.
This really pisses me off. Not that the government opened the way to mining, but that the comments are full of people who have no idea how mining works, or where their cars, their appliances, their gasoline and petroleum products come from.... or understand basic economic principals.
It is easy for everyone to sit back on their computers and cellphones made from plastic and metal and make judgement about a government trying to improve their economic situation. Where does everything you own come from? It comes from the land.
WE drive the need for mining... if there was no need, then there wouldn't be a supply (i.e new mining districts opening). So since you and I drive the need for mining, it is going to happen no matter what. It is better that it happens in a first world country with stringent environmental laws, labour laws, and responsibility rather than in third world countries with no concern for the environment or people at all! Jesus Christ people, think about it!!!!
Come on Canada/America/Wall Street/House of Morgan... When unrenewable resources are gone there're gone, finished, not coming back to the planet. What part of that don't the bigs/we understand?
Come on Canada/America/Wall Street/House of Morgan... When unrenewable resources are gone there're gone, finished, not coming back to the planet. What part of that don't the bigs/we understand?
Come on Canada/America/Wall Street/House of Morgan... China. When unrenewable resources are gone there're gone, finished, not coming back to the planet. What part of that don't the bigs understand?
Are radical fundamentalist capitalist capable of ecocide the extensive damage or destruction of our environment, the web of life? Find out about the campaign to have ecocide subject to criminal prosecution at www.eradicatingecocide.com
How can they feel like destroying such a beautiful wildernesses by mining and extracting? They have no love for nature,all they want is money money money. The glacier will melt,migration of animals will be affected giving consequences like threatening/extinction of flora and fauna. This is not right,they will have to pay for it,very soon.
Help change this:
Make a difference now, and share it with your friends. We can still change it.
"The Yukon wilderness has weapons of mass profit, we must invade and seize them."
How do we elect such evil heartless people?
the destruction of this planet can not continue! the most treasured land should be places like the peel. not because they have oil or coal or natural gas but because they have wildlife and complete ecosystems.
Those who want to see the Yukon open for resource extraction already have most of the territory available, even without 80% of the Peel. If you can't make successful economic development with the rest of the Yukon then you've got a faulty business model.
You've got plenty of the Yukon for your interests, you can't have it all.
Stop being so damn selfish and greedy. Show some respect for others and responsibility for your actions.
There are many things more important than money. Isn't that why we live here?
I see once again Native Peoples being treated like they are children, like they don't know any better. Well for the most part Natives Peoples live with the land, not rape it and leave it despoiled. I wish all Governments took a leaf from their book and treated Nature with reverence not contempt. We are losing Natural areas at a relentless pace. It seems there are no areas are sacred anymore, no areas where the prospect of big Dollars will not lure Governments to earn more Tax Revenue by allowing mining. Mining and making money is so important that we forget that Nature in its purest state will bring tourists in for countless generations and make much more money than short term mining ever will. This will be another lost area which the Native peoples will talk about long into the future before it was ruined for making Money. One has to wonder, how long can this Earth, our home take all what we are doing to it before Nature gives us a good Whack. Climate change may just be the beginnning of ills we will see. The Human race wouldn't be the first species to go Extinct. The only difference will be that we have bought it on our selves....... --- John from Kapunda, AUSTRALIA
Untrammeled wilderness is the most valuable land on earth. Nobody's making any more of it, and we're losing alarming acreage by the day. The more we protect, the better legacy and healthier planet we'll leave behind.
Would the outcome be different if all of Canada had a voice on the wildlife habitat, watersheds, and rugged landscapes in the Yukon? Hard to imagine we wouldn't see significantly more protection. As reported, opening 71% is a crime against nature. Seems to be a sorry instance of you get what you pay for, and the mining industry being willing to pay for politicians who provide "access."
In the long run, these lands will be far more valuable in their natural state -- for eco-tourism, hunting and fishing, and ecosystem functions.
There is no physical way to develop 71% of this region - it would cost trillions. 71% is open for development - that means in all likelihood 0% will actually be developed. After a decade or so of little or no development, Berger and clients will return with a smaller ask for money.
The people of the Yukon live there and have a right to make their own decisions. Urban dwellers from the USA have no business and no actual knowledge of this region.
Everything they want from the their iPhones to the Audis all come form mines.
So so sad. I am a disabled (75%) blind, US vet who has been in love with every inch of this planet's wonders and wilderness since boyhood. Already ashamed of what's happened here in the US along these lines, I literally cry to hear that our Canadian friends to the north have in their midst a group of mining interests who are TRULY blind. FIGHT on First Nations, many many of us here are on your side.
Thorin is correct Dan...
The Peel is locked now, for at least another 5 years and by then we'll have new Governance in Canada and the Yukon, that is better aligned with the will of the Canadian majority.
But, don't take my word for it... just watch.
@Brian Wills- What drugs are you on? Do you realize how few natives there were in Canada even 500 years ago? Natives have been given everything in treaties. It's always entertaining to see a half-baked political theorist rattle on about he doesn't know. Rattle on. But between rattles, educate yourself.
@Bailey Edwards You have obviously never been to the peel watershed. Go there, come back, and say the same thing. This place is magical, and truly it should be a UNESCO world heritage site. Im OK with a lot of places being mined, including the new one being put right beside my city. but NOT this place. there is no where else like it on earth.
You need to educate yourself before getting so upset on the facts. Of course mining gives us the things that we need, but don't you think that if we changed that "need" by looking what this destruction of pristine wilderness does to its native people, to the wilderness, to ecosystem's (everything that makes up an ecosystem), and in return, to us (i.e. drinking water in the watershed which ultimately goes into the groundwater), that it might show us that we don't need that much. It's not what the land has to offer, but what we think people, as a society, actually really need to live. Changing the way people think about what they have to have must occur first.
Do you want to live on a planet that has been raveged of its beauty?
@Bailey EdwardsFirst world country? With the Harper government Canada has been turned into a banana republic with gutted environmental laws, muzzled scientists and irresponsibility run rampant.
nice words; what will you actually DO about it?
@John Galt You realize that ore deposits are not found everywhere, right? It takes certain geological conditions for mining to be profitable. Plus, do you drive a car? Do you own a computer, or a cell phone? I'm guessing yes. This is a supply-demand economy. If people don't want mining to happen then they have to stop using products that require mining! It's as simple as that.
@john Duczek The Natives in the area agreed to this..... FYI.
@Siborg Hanborg unfortunately she's a figurehead. so not much. the governor general, however, might be able to do something.
@Tom Andersen Its not the development of 71% of the land that is bothersome, its just that that 71% happens to overlap with some of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the region. moreover, the mineral claims that are on the land, including the crest Iron Ore deposit, would require roads, possibly a railway, and a massive amount of disturbance to the land and the animals that live there. This is unacceptable considering the unique wilderness character of this area. I agree it will not be all dug up, but the parts that might could leave a scar on the rest of the landscape that cannot be recanted. We must protect this area for the good of our planet.
@Tom Andersen Nice to see there are some reasonable people here!
What some fail to grasp, which is obvious in the maps above, that to develop any of it they will cut roads across one of the last areas of wilderness in the world. For what? Money? There's plenty of other places already scarred where they can mine all the minerals they want.
Of course, I would love if our planet didn't require the need for this development, but that is purely not the case.
What sort of education would you like me to have? A degree in political science? I have a degree in geology and have worked in mines in the Yukon, the real world education it seems that other people in this forum do not have.
The fact is that this is a market based economy, and no one is willing to give up their everyday privileges to prevent mining.
Do you understand the laws that are put in place in Canada to prevent ground water contamination? To ensure that when a mine closes, it doesn't affect the surrounding environment? Do you understand how much planning has to go into a mine and its closure plans before its even considered to be opened? Do you understand how many years it takes, and how many professional geologists and engineers and experts, 3rd party contracts and government assistance it takes to open a mine??? Obviously not.
It must also be easy for everyone with a job to be sitting back...giving their opinion about a government trying to further their economy. Tell your opinion to the unemployed in the territory who are trying to feed their families and see what they think.
@Bailey Edwards @John Galt I don't think it's quite that clear cut. Rather, we should cut back our use of those products ... gradually increasing those cutbacks would be good ... and fight to save as much wilderness as we can. And, thirdly, to be as benign as we can to the environment in the mining (etc.) practices we allow to happen.
Special Ad Section
Video of the Day
Tigers are secretive by nature, making it difficult to estimate their populations. See how the Wildlife Conservation Society employs an ingenious solution.