Photograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection
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The wild heart of the Yukon Territory, the Peel Water­shed is rich in rugged peaks and braided rivers. It also harbors vast mineral wealth, spark­ing fierce debate over its future.

Photograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection

Vast Yukon Wilderness Protected in Ruling for Native Tribes

A Canadian Supreme Court decision spares the massive Peel Watershed from development and mining.

Environmental and indigenous groups are cheering a landmark decision by Canada’s highest court on Friday, which ordered the Yukon Territorial Government to abide by a negotiated plan to preserve one of the largest intact wilderness areas in North America.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s unanimous decision marks the end of a three-year legal battle between the Yukon government and a coalition of indigenous First Nations and environmental groups over the future of the Peel Watershed, a wildlife-rich region of mountains and rivers that also has significant deposits of gas, coal, iron, and other minerals. Roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland, the pristine region was featured in an article in the February 2014 issue of National Geographic.

A commission made up of representatives from the First Nations and the Yukon government spent seven years negotiating the fate of the Peel Watershed via a process laid out in land claims agreements signed by Yukon First Nations and the federal and territorial governments. The commission produced a final recommendation in 2011 to keep 80 percent of the watershed roadless and off-limits to resource extractors.

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Wildlife are abundant in the Peel Watershed.

In 2014, though, the Yukon government rejected the commission’s plan and adopted its own mining-friendly version, which would have opened 71 percent of the area to industrial development.

Friday’s ruling chided the Yukon government for disrespecting treaties with First Nations and for contravening its constitutional obligations. The ruling ordered the government to complete final consultations on a land use plan that will protect roughly 80 percent of the watershed.

Yukon: Canada’s Isolated Oasis

Learn about the Yukon from the point of view of locals.

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