Victory for Yukon Wilderness Is "Game-Changer"

Historic ruling protects much of pristine Peel River Watershed.

Environmentalists and indigenous people across northern Canada are celebrating a historic legal victory that protects one of the world's last major pristine river systems. In a December 2 ruling, Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale ruled that the Canadian territory's government did not have the authority to override a land-use plan to preserve the bulk of the 26,000-square-mile (67,000-square-kilometer) Peel Watershed region.

A wildlife habitat of global importance, the northern Yukon wilderness is one of North America's few remaining unbroken tracts with large, intact predator-prey ecosystems. Seven major rivers flow through the Scotland-sized area, which is home to healthy populations of caribou, grizzly bears, wolverines, and peregrine falcons. The nearly roadless landscape is also the winter range of the Porcupine caribou herd, which summers in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (See "Yukon: Canada's Wild West.")

Dave Loeks, chair of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, believes that the ruling is a game-changer for land-use planning and resource management in the north and maybe throughout Canada.

"Conservation values have more likelihood of being taken into account in formulating public policy," he says. "Mining and industry may have a less prominent position in policymaking, which means that the remaining open spaces in the north have a fighting chance."

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Moose, wolves, bears, caribou, and other wildlife abound in the Peel Watershed. The region also harbors vast mineral wealth, sparking fierce debate over its future.

Stunning Reversal

Yukon government officials announced last January that they would open most of the area to mining and other development, rejecting a plan they had negotiated with indigenous leaders to designate 80 percent of the area as protected wilderness. The territorial government's action stunned aboriginal leaders like Ed Champion, chief of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation.

"The Yukon government's unilateral decision on the plan for the Peel violated our agreements," says Champion. "This land is our breadbasket, it's our university, our church. We've been there since time immemorial, and we'll be here forever. To protect our land and water is the soul of the First Nations."

The Supreme Court's ruling was eagerly anticipated by indigenous communities and Yukon conservationists, who joined forces in a legal battle led by renowned aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger.

"We were all waiting in our office at 9 a.m. when the ruling came in," says Christina Macdonald, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society. "As we scrolled down to the bottom of the document, we realized it was a home run; we'd gotten everything we asked for."

Macdonald stepped into the autumn-darkened streets of Whitehorse to find "cheering, and hugging in the streets," she says. "The majority of the Yukon people wanted this plan as it was negotiated. The Peel is a special place for us; we needed to keep at least one place unmined and untouched, at least one place where you can still drink from the waters."

"I think it's a total victory," says Jeff Langlois, who represented the Gwich'in Tribal Council, an intervener in the case.

Though the ruling compels the territorial government to reopen consultation regarding limited modifications proposed earlier, it sets in stone the Peel Watershed Planning Commission's most significant recommendation: that 80 percent of the area be protected as wilderness, with only 20 percent open to industrial development. This balance was struck after years of study and consultation with all parties.

Initially, First Nations leaders had wanted the entire 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. Via a community-based, collaborative land-use planning process that stretched over nearly a decade, 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, of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, "but we expected the agreement to be honored."

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Election Mandate?

In the fall of 2011, elections consolidated the power of the Yukon Party, which is heavily supported by mining interests. 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. And since we won a majority government, we felt a mandate to proceed in a manner that was the correct one."

Berger, who argued the case against the government, disagreed. "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.' "

The Supreme Court's decision scolded the Yukon government for breaking its deal with the four First Nations whose traditional territories are within the region, saying officials' actions ran counter to the goal of reconciliation with First Nations and thus did not uphold the "honor and integrity of the crown."

Yukon government officials, who did not return multiple requests for comment, released a written statement that they "will carefully review [the] decision before determining how to move forward and will assess implications of the judgment on land use planning and the economic future in Yukon."

Even some in the mining industry are questioning the government's approach, in the wake of the decision. "The way [land-use planning] is currently being undertaken is creating uncertainty for industry," says Samson Hartland, executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines. Hartland says planning should be done through talking, not courtroom showdowns.

"Uncertainty is doubt; when there's doubt companies don't invest and economically we all suffer," says Chief Champion. "We are not against development, when it is done right. Trust is the heart of this. With the Peel process, the government made mistakes, especially in not understanding that our final agreement means we are there to co-manage the lands. The court decision is an opportunity for First Nations and government and all Yukoners to work together."

"This win is also a great gift to the world," says Gill Cracknell, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's Yukon Chapter. "Large watersheds and wildlife habitats are increasingly rare because of climate change and development pressures."

"This is a great victory for the First Nations, the environmental organizations, and all Yukoners," says Champion, the Na-Cho Nyak Dun chief. "In the end, one of the world's last great wilderness areas will be protected."