Peel watershed in the Yukon open for business

Peel watershed in the Yukon open for business by Jacqueline Ronson, January 22, 2014, Yukon News
The Yukon government has released its final plan for the Peel watershed under threat of legal action from First Nations. As of today, 71 per cent of the watershed is open to new staking. The area has been under a staking ban for almost four years. It’s a far cry from the plan recommended by the planning commission, which would have allowed new staking in only 20 per cent of the region. But Environment Minister Currie Dixon says the new plan is more fair to people who depend on mining for their livelihood. “It’s a plan that we feel achieves the balance that we were seeking between the needs of our economy, both today and into the future, with the needs we have to protect our environment and protect this unique and important area of the Yukon.”

The four affected First Nations announced last week that they would implement the final recommended plan in their settlement areas within the watershed, which cover about three per cent of the total area. The First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, and Gwich’in Tribal Council had called on the Yukon government to follow suit. “This is a sad day for all Yukon First Nations and all Yukoners,” said Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Eddie Taylor in a news release Wednesday. “We had hoped that at the end of the day the government of Yukon would do the right thing and accept the final recommended plan.” The First Nations say the government’s action is in violation of its agreements. They have not yet said if they will take the government to court, but continue to threaten legal action. “We are not going to give up on the Peel,” said Norman Snowshoe, vice president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council. “The final chapter to this story is definitely yet to be written.”

Opposition parties have expressed disappointment that the government has turned away from the wishes of not only the First Nations but also the general Yukon public. “I’m not sure that the Yukon government has fully thought out the consequences of this action,” said Kate White, the NDP’s environment critic. Choosing the path of confrontation and litigation is creating an economic uncertainty for the territory. Part of the surprise is the amount of disrespect that they’re showing to First Nation governments and to all Yukoners who participated in the process,” said White.

During the last round of public consultation people from inside and outside of the Yukon came out in strong support of the final recommended plan. The government deleted those numbers from the report released to the public, although the News later exposed them to the public through an access-to-information request. Interim Liberal Leader Sandy Silver said the government’s actions set a dangerous precedent for future land use planning in the territory. “The message is, ‘Stay home. We don’t care what you have to say,’” said Silver.

New staking, roads and mines are allowed in these areas. But the government says that special rules will mean that the region will retain its wilderness character. Companies operating in these areas will be required to report all helicopter or airplane flights as well as all low-level exploration activities. Flying over sensitive sheep habitat could be restricted during the calving season. … Existing claims in the region are still valid and can be developed, including in protected areas. New roads may be built anywhere in the region, although they must be temporary. [Emphasis added]

‘This might be the day when they lost the next election’ by Ainslie Cruickshank, January 22, 2014
Na-cho Nyak Dun Chief Ed Champion says it’s a given that the four affected First Nations will take the Yukon government to court over the Peel land use plan released Tuesday. “We’ve been well prepared for this; we’ve just been waiting for this decision from the government,” Champion said in an interview this morning. An announcement regarding the legal challenge will likely come next week at the Mineral Exploration Roundup event in Vancouver, he told the Star.

Champion said the four affected First Nations, including the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Vuntut Gwintchin and the Tetlit Ghwich’in, are “very disappointed” with the government’s decision to implement its own land use plan for the Peel watershed rather than the plan recommended by the land use planning commission in 2011.  Last Friday, the four governments announced they would implement the final recommended plan within their settlements lands, and urged the Yukon government to do the same. “The new plan is outside of the scope of the planning process,” Champion said, referring to the process outlined in chapter 11 of the land claim’s Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA). “This action is undermining all the hard work that’s gone into the 20 years of negotiating final agreements and the 20 years that we have been implementing them,” Champion said. “They are kicking a sleeping giant when they undermine the final agreements. This might be the day when they lost the next election.”

David Loeks chaired the Peel Land Use Planning Commission which spent seven years working to develop the final recommended plan. He told the Star today a legal challenge is necessary to protect the process outlined in the final agreements. “The land claims agreements more or less asked the First Nations to give up theoretical title to 100 per cent of the landscape in exchange for title to just a portion of it plus the promise of co-management on the other part of the landscape,” he noted. But the government’s actions with the release of its plan essentially divide responsibility for land management, going against that integral idea of co-management, Loeks suggested. “If the First Nations allow this to pass unchallenged, it basically sets the precedence that you really don’t need the UFA planning process, that YTG is entitled to plan on their own.”

Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Scott Kent continued to contend today that the government has followed the process outlined under the UFA.
“We’re very confident that we’re acting within our jurisdiction with these plans,” Kent said in an interview. “We have the ability to accept, reject, or modify and we’ve chosen, as (Environment) minister (Currie) Dixon mentioned, to modify the plan,” he said. “Whether or not court action is taken is certainly something that’s up to the First Nations, but as I mentioned, we’re certainly very confident that we followed the process that’s set out in the Umbrella Final Agreement,” Kent continued. [Emphasis added]

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