The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

U of S students explore development controversy in Yukon

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The Hart River runs through the Peel Watershed and is one of the Yukon's most isolated rivers.
The Hart River runs through the Peel Watershed and is one of the Yukon’s most isolated rivers.

Since January 2013, a group of students and professors from the University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability have been studying the land use planning process in the Peel Watershed in the Yukon.

The Peel Watershed covers one sixth of the Yukon’s territory — an area roughly the size of New Brunswick — and has no permanent human settlements.

The group wrote a paper titled “Fixing Land Use Planning the Peel Watershed Before It Really Breaks” which was recently published in Yukon College’s journal Northern Review. The paper focuses on how the Yukon government’s land use planning process in the Peel Watershed has attempted to balance the interest of conservationists, aboriginal groups and industry sectors.

“This has been one of the more contentious regions just because there are so many perspectives on how the region should be used,” said Kiri Staples, a master’s candidate in the School of Environment and Sustainability and the paper’s lead author.

The paper began as a project for a course on decision making in environmental sustainability, but grew into a full-scale academic study at the encouragement of SENS professors M.J. Barnett and Douglas Clark.

Coming from the Yukon’s territorial capital, Whitehorse, Staples feels a personal connection to the Peel Watershed.

“I’ve spent a bit of time in the watershed and in that sense it’s pretty close to my heart and it’s an issue I’m pretty invested in,” Staples said. “But at the same time, part of writing this paper was putting aside that emotional connection because you want to approach an issue like this as unbiased as possible.”

In their paper, Staples and her colleagues concluded that the Yukon government has failed to take all perspectives into account in the Peel Watershed decision-making process.

The Peel Watershed is used by a number of First Nations, including the Na-Cho Nyak Don and the Vuntut Gwitchin, for traditional activities such as hunting and fishing. Commercial hunting guides also operate in the area.

The area has recently attracted the attention of a growing number of mining and resource extraction companies that have staked their claim to the Peel Watershed’s abundant natural resources. Because many of these companies made their claims before the land use planning process began, their interests must be taken into account in the final plan.

There are currently no active mining operations or oil and gas explorations in the area.

The Peel Watershed is home to some of the most pristine wilderness in Canada and is prized by environmentalists. During the summer of 2011, David Suzuki paddled the entirety of the Hart River through the region.

“The Peel Watershed is often portrayed as environment versus development and that’s a really stark contrast,” Staples said. “I don’t think that portrays the diversity of opinions out there.”

A commission was appointed by the Yukon government in 2004 to consult the public and to gather recommendations for the final land use plan. In July 2011, the commission produced a “final recommended plan” that called for 80 per cent of the region to be protected and for the rest to be developed in a controlled manner.

The four First Nations governments in the region and the territorial government could each choose to accept, modify or reject the commission’s plan.

The initial plan was accepted by all four First Nations’ governments. However, the Yukon government has said it is going to modify the plan but has yet to specify how.

This has led to accusations from regional stakeholders that the Yukon government is not taking the interest of all parties into account equally.

The conclusion of Staples’ paper states that “the focus of our analysis has been on the Yukon government following the submission of the final recommended plan. This emphasis illuminates how, in the absence of sufficient constitutive safeguards, one of the parties involved can fundamentally transform the way decisions are made.”

The paper goes on to recommend that tighter parameters be established around future land use planning processes to ensure that the voices of all stakeholders are given equal importance.

The land use planning process is still ongoing and no decisions have been finalized at this point.


Photo: Juri Peepre

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