Legal effort to protect Yukon’s Peel Watershed gaining public support

Image from Protect the Peel (© Tyler Kuhn)
Image from Protect the Peel (© Tyler Kuhn)

Whitehorse – Early this year, the Yukon Government announced its decision to open a large section of the territory’s Peel River watershed to development. A global natural treasure, the Peel region is one of the last large intact ecosystems on the continent.

The move prompted two environmental organizations and two local First Nations to launch a legal case defending the area.

Represented by the renowned Thomas Berger — famous for his groundbreaking work on the Mackenzie Valley pipeline hearings in the 70s — the groups include the Na Cho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations, as well as the Yukon Chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the Yukon Conservation Society.

Seeking to protect 54,000 square kilometres of wilderness in the northern part of the Peel Watershed against mining and other industrial development, the groups have launched a Protect the Peel campaign website, in order to keep the the public informed and to garner donations for ongoing legal fees.

The legal challenge comes after six years of study and consultation, which featured conservation experts and other groups working with the Yukon Government to devise a land use plan that would have protected up to 80 per cent of the Peel Watershed, while opening the rest to controlled development. However, the Yukon Government dismissed the commission’s land use plan and instead announced its own Final Recommended Plan for the region, which would allow for mineral and oil and gas staking on 71 per cent of the region.

First Nations and conservation groups are concerned that expanding mining exploration will lead to more roads and other forms of development throughout the pristine wilderness areas, fragmenting the landscape and interfering with animal migration routes. One new mine, they say, could open the region up to many others, as transportation opportunities lower the cost of extraction.

CPAWS Yukon and the Yukon Conservation Society recently announced the conclusions reached in a legal opinion by Thomas Berger, which states that Yukon Government would not be legally obligated to provide compensation for existing mining claims in the Peel watershed if the Final Recommended Plan were to be implemented.

“Once again, Yukon Government is saying in the legislature that if the Final Recommended Plan for the Peel Watershed was implemented the taxpayer would be on the hook to pay compensation to mining companies with existing claims in the watershed,” said Yukon Conservation Society’s executive director, Karen Baltgailis. “Mr. Berger’s thirty-three page, carefully reasoned and researched legal opinion shows that this simply isn’t true.”

As the decision date for the Peel Legal Case approaches, set for July 7, public initiatives supporting the legal effort have been ramping up throughout the Yukon and beyond. In the ten weeks since the court case was announced, rallies have taken place in Aklavik, Dawson, Fort McPherson, Haines Junction, Inuvik, Mayo, Old Crow and Whitehorse.

“Since the lawsuit was announced on January 27th we have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of public support,” says Amber Church, conservation campaigner with CPAWS-Yukon. “The goal of raising $100,000 for the court case is already coming close to the halfway mark!”

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