Yukon Policy Short On Actual Protection For Wetlands

Wetlands in Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Na-Cho Nyäk Dun territories' are still facing relentless and unfettered devastation from placer mining.

Kaylee Nitsiza and Odette Auger

Placer mining along the Indian River, near Quartz Creek

Yukon disclosed its first ever official policy for the stewardship of wetlands earlier this year. The policy commits the government to mapping and creating an inventory of wetlands across the territory within the next five years, and sets guardrails for how development operates in and around wetlands.

However, the policy also allows for industrial activity in wetlands – which are currently heavily impacted by placer mining – to continue. One week after the territory’s policy announcement, in a press statement released on January 17, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nations jointly expressed their disappointment by announcing that their concerns for wetlands had not been properly reflected in the policy – even after their extensive consultation with the government.

Na-Cho Nyäk Dun Chief Simon Mervyn firmly states that his First Nation rejects the policy. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph reinforces the importance of upholding Indigenous land stewardship as part of their treaty agreement. Joseph notes, “We feel this policy upholds a status quo approach to development within sensitive and rare ecosystems that, as a society, we can no longer afford to take.”

If a peat bog is destroyed, it cannot be replicated, but the mining site could be left looking like a swampy area.

In an email answering Watershed Sentinel’s request for a response to the Nations’ concerns, the government defended their policy. Chantelle Rivest, who works in communications for the Yukon Department of Environment, states the territorial government has worked for over five years to “create an inclusive space and opportunity for all Yukoners; Indigenous, municipal and federal governments; land-claim mandated boards and councils; as well as industry representatives.” She told Watershed Sentinel this inclusion was “to help us develop a wetlands stewardship policy which best meets the diverse perspectives and needs of all Yukoners.”

One serious concern expressed by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nations is the policy’s approach to protecting sensitive wetlands from mining destruction, for example in the Indian River Valley. The Nations’ news release notes that the policy allows for continued development of all wetland classes and offers minimal guidance as to when and how impacts can be avoided and/or mitigated. In response to the criticisms, Rivest wrote that, “Interim measures remain in effect…. To obtain a placer mining licence to operate there, proponents must submit a wetlands reclamation plan that shows how they plan to protect and reclaim the area where they operate.”

Mining Stages Graphic Malkolm Boothroyd, CPAWS Yukon.

Rivest states that these interim measures aim to avoid disturbing wetlands whenever possible, and to try to leave the area so that it resembles the surrounding environment. This vague parameter is exactly what the Nations feel is “minimal guidance.” For example, if a peat bog is destroyed, it cannot be replicated, but the mining site could be left looking like a swampy area.

The Yukon chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) says, “Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun have raised serious issues with the Yukon’s approach to wetlands, concerns which CPAWS Yukon shares. Wetlands have enormous cultural and ecological significance, and are massive carbon storehouses…. It’s critical that the Yukon government works with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Na-Cho Nyäk Dun to resolve their concerns.”

Wetlands still facing a devastating status quo

CPAWS is paying close attention to how government policies are allowing extensive mining, despite land use agreements and “interim measures” for protection. Malkolm Boothroyd, CPAWS’ campaigns co-ordinator, describes portaging the Indian River as a study in contrasts – experiencing the stillness of being “surrounded by ancient trees, and you drift by river banks that are criss-crossed in moose tracks,” and then witnessing sections that “are engulfed by placer mining, and the noise of machinery drowns out the sound of the river.”

Boothroyd explains that “almost all the development within this area is associated with placer mining, which closely traces the bottoms of valleys – which also happen to be some of the most fragile and biodiverse environments within the landscape.” He has worked out a series of calculations that illustrate how even the 5% surface-disturbance limit of the Dawson Regional Land Use Plan, translated onto the Indian River Valley landscape, still allows for “a whole lot of development [that] could be packed into valley bottoms.” Alongside the river are wetlands of all kinds – fens, bogs, swamps, marshes, and peat.

In some parts of the watershed, placer mines stretch along the bottom of the valley almost as far as the eye can see.

“Gold, like water, seeks the lowest points in the landscape,” Boothroyd explains. “So placer mines are clustered around creeks, rivers, and wetlands.” In some parts of the watershed, “placer mines stretch along the bottom of the valley almost as far as the eye can see.”

The concerns of local Indigenous communities have not been addressed, despite the way the government would like to present it. This is of global importance – in addition to their ecological value, wetlands act as one of the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet.

As the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nations explain, peatlands took thousands of years to develop. “The destruction of carbon rich peatlands allowed under this policy will release significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, further undermining our collective ability to fight climate change.”

CPAWS agrees, saying “since the Yukon government doesn’t account for carbon in its climate plans,” the organization has prepared a report estimating the carbon costs of placer mining in peatlands. They hope the report “will prompt the Yukon to start addressing the climate implications of developing in wetlands.”

Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Na-Cho Nyäk Dun Nations urge the Yukon Government in their statement to reconsider their policy, and to “work with Yukon First Nations to jointly develop, and approve, a policy for wetlands that we can all support.”

Kaylee Nitsiza (Tłicho Dene) is a current participant in the Watershed Sentinel’s Indigenous Junior Reporter Mentorship Program. Odette Auger (Sagamok Anishnawbek) is an award-winning freelance journalist and Watershed Sentinel’s managing editor.

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