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."