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Opinion: Putting industry first in the Three Rivers is a breach of trust


by Bob Jickling, long-time Yukon resident
This essay appeared in the print version of the Yukon News on Wednesday, January 9, 2008.

Yukoners have many dreams about the land. It’s tough, cold, and sometimes unforgiving, but we love it. It nourishes our spirit, excites our curiosity, and commands our respect.

We dream about many things – having a cabin in the woods, seeing sheep, experiencing the Porcupine Caribou Herd, catching fish, or just being out in a peaceful corner of this place, filling ourselves with the wonder of it all. Many of us “would trade it for no land on earth.”

Our values are reflected in these dreams and, interestingly, in the Environment Act. The first line recognizes “that the way of life of the people of the Yukon is founded on an economic, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual relationship with the environment and that this relationship is dependent on respect for and protection of the resources of the Yukon.”

This passage recognizes cultural diversity, and values beyond the economic ones. Yet, it still seems insufficient to offer protection. We are constantly reminded that these values can be pre-empted by other legislation.

The recommended approval of Cash Minerals’ Werencke Winter Road Access Project is a case in point. In spite of unprecedented public opposition, the Regional Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, in Mayo, has given its blessing to this project, and in so doing has put at risk values that the Yukon Environment Act is predicated upon.

Dozens of letters affirmed a broad range of concern about the road project. The letters often did not defer to the technical language of “mitigation,” so loved by proponents of technical processes, but they did underscore a broad suite values. At times, mitigation is not a viable option.

Skepticism about reversing industrial damage through mitigation seems befuddling to some mining proponents. The Mayo office has apparently acquiesced to their rhetoric. But when mitigating, wilderness values always lose.

Think of driving a pickup truck out of the showroom and into a parking lot where it gets its first scrape. Would you calmly say, “I can mitigate this”? What would you say about the second scrape, the first dint? And how would you feel after ten years of accumulated scrapes and dints?

There are parallels here. Just as scrapes and dints accumulate in the pickup truck, so, too, do they accumulate in wilderness areas. At first there is outrage, but as they add up over time we take less notice. These are cumulative impacts. At some point, we begin to expect more abuse. When the truck becomes an old “beater”, it is easy to treat it roughly.

Wilderness advocates know this. They know that one set of scrapes on the land leads to more scrapes and dints. As the land is degraded, there is less respect for it. Mitigation is never a complete success. This is how slow, grinding, incremental change happens. The screening process has not recognized this.

Cumulative effects of uranium mining and industrial activities have not been considered. Because assessors cannot know the future, they ignore it. These, they say, are issues for land use planning and/or public policy, while in the same breath approving activities that will compromise such planning.

Sadly, this screening was not precautionary. It failed to understand the compromised cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, intrinsic, and other values alien to the language of mitigation. We must urge the Premier to reject the Cash Mineral Proposal.

However, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. The broad values of the Yukon Environment Act will never be respected while other values are advantaged.

This is what happens under the Quartz Mining Act that allows any individual, eighteen years of age or over, free entry to locate, prospect, stake claims, and mine for minerals on territorial land. This Act consistently preempts others’ interests.

It is right of access that that allows Cash Minerals to develop claims and propose a winter road into the Wind River area. It is this right of access that consistently frustrates comprehensive land planning, and other Yukon values.

Remember the Tombstone Park debacle? After campaigning on a promise to establish a larger park than the previous government, the NDP leader refused to withdraw the land from prospecting. Subsequent claim staking frustrated the public will and created hurdles for establishing the park. As far as I know, these claims remain a threat to this protected area.

That isn’t all. Recently 1000 members of the Whitehorse Cross-country Ski Club learned that 85 claims had been staked throughout their trails. Last summer a friend found that, after 15 years developing a retirement cabin on a rural acreage, his land had been staked. He could spend his twilight years watching a Class 1 mining operation in his back yard. How fair is that?

Of course, we don’t know what will happen to the claims near the Wind River, in Tombstone Park, on the Whitehorse Cross-country Ski Club trails, or on my friend’s lot. But we do know that that advantage always goes to those driving stakes through other people’s values.

You cannot stake a park, hunting area, or retirement lot in the woods. You cannot stake a patch of ground for your dog team, a coffee shop, a wilderness lodge, or ski trails. You cannot stake a claim to land if you are a trapper, outfitter, wilderness guide, poet, artist, or educator. Only prospectors can.

It was only after traveling to wilderness areas in New Mexico that conservationist Aldo Leopold could see how much his beloved Wisconsin had been degraded. The Yukon has the same effect. It remains one of the last places on Earth that can show visitors, and Yukoners, what the land can be like – before being ravaged by humans.

Caring for the Yukon is more than a right, it is a responsibility. Our responsibilities will require us to, first, rise up and protect the Wind River.

Second, land use legislation must be brought into line with the Environment Act. The Act states, “the Government of the Yukon is the trustee of public trust and is therefore responsible for the protection of the collective interest of the people of the Yukon in the quality of the natural environment.” Privileging prospecting, staking, and mining is a breach of trust. Finally, the Quartz Mining Act must be revised and the “free entry” staking provisions eliminated. This will not end mining; it will just allow room for the rest of us to realize some of our dreams too.