July 15, 2012 Features & Images » Feature Story

A river removed 

A canoe descent of the Yukon's wild Snake River offers insight into the battle for a watershed and a meditation on the meaning of pristine landscapes.

click to flip through (6) Mary Walden takes in the Yukon's wilderness from the window of a beaver aircraft
  • Mary Walden takes in the Yukon's wilderness from the window of a beaver aircraft

Page 8 of 9

"The Peel is still raw and wild — unlike anywhere else in the country. Development would end that, forever," James Munson once wrote in the Yukon News. "Forever can't be mitigated."

More information about outfitters operating in the Peel watershed:



Positions and information on the Peel land-use process:




Staking a claim for a watershed

The Peel watershed land use process grinds as slowly as Mount MacDonald's glaciers in northern Yukon.

In December 2009, after seven years of consultations, the independent Peel Watershed Planning Commission recommended that 80.6 per cent of the region be withdrawn from staking and protected, and that 19.4 per cent become Integrated Management Areas, where mineral, gas and oil could be accessed only if there were no significant environmental deterrents. A round of public consultation revealed more than 90 per cent support for the plan.

In February 2010, the commission received a formal response to its recommendations. There were no surprises: First Nations felt the proposal was inadequate, insisting on 100 per cent protection; government said 80.6 per cent protection was far too much and sent the commission back to the drawing board. The mining lobby was equally unimpressed.

"The area we're talking about is huge," says Claire Derome, president of the Yukon Chamber of Mines. "It's 15 per cent of the Yukon, which would add to the 14 per cent that is already protected. You'd jump to having close to 30 per cent of the Yukon set aside. This is way beyond anything that exists in Canada."

At first it was thought that the slow pace of decision-making would prove helpful to conservationists. The Yukon is again experiencing a boom due to the strong price of gold and demand from China, with a rash of new claims and increased work on established claims outside the Peel watershed. Would this much activity elsewhere in the territory make it more palatable to set aside a large, intact wilderness like the Peel? In fall 2011, after another round of public consultation, the commission returned its final plan, a compromise in which only 55 per cent of the watershed would be permanently protected, 25 per cent conserved with periodic reviews to decide if it should open to development, and various uses allowed in the remaining 20 per cent. The Yukon government reserved judgment on this as it went into an election.

In February, 2012, the Yukon's new premier, Darrell Pasloski, a former federal Conservative Party candidate, rejected the recommendations outright. Conservation groups and First Nations immediately accused the government of gutting the commission's widely supported compromise, forged through eight years of study and bitter debate.

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