#9 – The Peel Watershed
An expansive, roadless canoe-tripping haven threatened by resource extraction
Text by Conor Mihell
Photos by Peter Mather
A half-dozen brawny, whitewater rivers tumble out of the northern terminus of the Rocky Mountains, draining 26,000 square miles of alpine wilderness into the Peel River of Canada's Yukon territory. The Snake, Wind, Ogilvie, Bonnet Plume, Hart and Blackstone rivers are a canoe-tripping dreamscape of wildlife and scenery for Yukon-based photographer Peter Mather, who has made an astounding 15 journeys in the Peel watershed. "There's no place like it left in the world," says Mather, a C&K contributing photographer. "It is what the West would have been like 200 years ago—wild, untouched…the feel of an ancient land."
Mather's favorite memory from the Peel comes on the Wind River, a smooth-flowing, Class II gem buttressed by soaring 6,000-foot peaks. On one trip, his group pulled up on a gravel bar and encountered a skittish black wolf. Soon after, a young blond pup responded to Mather's awkward howl, and wandered into camp a few times during the group's two-night stay. The next year, Mather revisited the site and saw the same blond wolf, now fully grown. "I'm sure she recognized my howl and tent," says Mather. "She came by every evening for four days to check on me."
While outdoor enthusiasts like Mather value the Peel for its wilderness, local First Nations depend on the region for age-old cultural traditions. On the other hand, geologists see the watershed's virtually roadless, untracked expanse as a frontier for mineral and oil and gas exploration. To find a solution to competing interests, the territorial government launched a planning process in 2004 to identify values and develop a management strategy for the entire watershed. The Peel Watershed Planning Commission was comprised of members of the public, government and local First Nations. After years of consultation ending in 2011, the commission recommended protecting 55 percent of the watershed and interim "wilderness area" protection for 25 percent, with the balance available to cautious development.
Christina Macdonald, the director of the Yukon Conservation Society, says the recommendations reflected the fact that the majority of Yukon residents recognize the Peel's ecological and cultural significance and support its protection. "For its [northerly] latitude, the Peel has a remarkable range of wildlife and plants," notes Macdonald. "There's a wide range of habitats—tall mountains, wetlands and forested plateaus—that support a diversity of wildlife and plants, including wolverine, grizzly bear, caribou, peregrine falcon and harlequin duck.
"Then there's this incredible system of rivers and minimal human impacts," adds Macdonald, highlighting to the area's importance as a refuge for flora and fauna to weather the impacts of climate change. "It's all pretty damn rare in this day and age."
First Nations and conservationists were shocked last year when the Yukon government ignored the planning commission's recommendations and issued its own directives, opening the door for exploration and industrial development in over 70 percent of the region. A legal battled ensued, ending in a landmark ruling by Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale on Dec. 2, 2014, which sided with the plaintiffs.
According to Neil Hartling, the owner of Whitehorse, Yukon-based outfitter Nahanni River Adventures, Veale decreed the government's actions as "nothing less less than a sucker-punch to the First Nations. In legalese it's called 'sharp dealing,' not honorable behavior for an individual or a government." Veale ruled the territorial government did not follow the appropriate consultation process, and forced policymakers to revisit discussions with local First Nation communities regarding the planning commission's recommended plan.
But victory never comes easy for conservationists. In early January, the government appealed Justice Veale's ruling. "We feel the remedy imposed by the Supreme Court too severely limits the public government`s ability to make decisions about public lands," indicated Scott Kent, the Yukon's minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, in a press release. Macdonald says the appeal will likely result in months of legal limbo, but she's confident the original decision will be upheld.
"We're not sure what grounds they have to make an appeal," says Macdonald. "Judge Veale's ruling doesn't challenge government power. It recognizes the need to participate in good faith within the parameters of treaty rights."
For his part, Mather says the utter wilderness and canoe-tripping possibilities of the Peel are the reasons he's proud to be a Yukoner. As much as he feels responsible to stand up for the land, he insists the battle to protect the Peel should be fought by all paddlers who "cherish clean water, a clean environment" and blank spaces on the map. "We want areas like this to still be wild in 100 years," says Mather, "so our children and grandchildren can share in the adventure."
This story is part of a C&K series covering the world’s ten most threatened paddling runs. Read about the other rivers, and stay tuned as the final runs are released: