A view of Hart River in the Peel Watershed. Photo by Marten Berkman

A view of Hart River in the Peel Watershed. Photo by Marten Berkman

By Conor Mihell

Christmas came early for conservationists lobbying to protect a massive swath of mountainous wilderness in Canada's Yukon Territory. On Dec. 2, Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale ruled the territorial government did not follow the appropriate consultation process in planning for land use in the 26,000-square-mile Peel watershed. The decision strongly supports indigenous rights in land use planning—and should help safeguard a suite of glacier-fed, life-list rivers for wilderness canoeists.

In 2011, the Peel Watershed Planning Conservation recommended protecting 80 percent of the region, which includes iconic waterways like the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume rivers. "The social, economic and environmental values—together with very few roads and little industrial development in the region—make this area unique at a territorial, national and even global level," concluded the commission. Meanwhile, developers eyed the area for its reserves of minerals and oil and gas.

Protest sign reading, "Don't touch the Peel watershed with your oily hands."

Protest against proposed development in the Peel watershed.

Government received over 10,000 responses in its public consultation, with 94 percent supportive of the recommendations. Yet in January 2014, the territory issued its own directives, which would make over 70 percent of the region open to industrial development. "It’s a pristine alpine region with stunning scenery, exceptional wildlife, great hiking and whitewater," says Neil Hartling, the owner of Whitehorse, Yukon-based Nahanni River Adventures and long-time local guide. "The plexus of rivers that form the watershed provide years of expedition options that could fill a career of northern adventures."

Justice Veale's decision forces policymakers to revisit discussions with local First Nation communities. So far, government's actions have been "ham-handed," says Hartling, "…nothing 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.

"I hope the government accepts and follows the judge's remedies so that our territory can move ahead with certainty in land-use planning," adds Hartling. "A respectful relationship with First Nations will lead to greater sustainability and better economic conditions in the Yukon."

Learn more about the legal battle to protect the Peel watershed:

Join distinguished Canadian conservationist and scientist David Suzuki in the Yukon wilderness:

–Read more environmental paddling stories from C&K.