Paving the Way for Development of the Peel Watershed

The Peel Watershed, a region of the Yukon nearly the size of New Brunswick, has been largely untouched since people rushed to the area in search of gold back in the late 19th century. News today is that the Yukon government has made a decision to open up over 70% of the region to future developments, in particular mining operations.

This decision is quite different from the recommendation of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, which suggested that 80% of the area be designated as protected and free from economic development. The government of the Yukon has indicated that protection will occur, but only in 29% of the region. This raises concerns about how the environment will be affected with developments in primary sector activities (zinc, copper, iron, and uranium are among the main sought after minerals). This new plan by government may also clash with First Nations groups in the area, who have already made it known they do not agree with large scale resource development and may, as some reports suggest, seek legal action against the government.

In terms of ecology, watersheds are vitally important to local vegetation and animal life, and let’s not forget that includes humans. It’s understandable why criticism is mounting for this kind of developmental plan. The following is from the United States Environmental Protection Agency website and outlines some of the primary benefits of these natural areas:

The benefits and services provided by healthy watersheds are numerous and include reduced vulnerability to invasive species, climate change, and future land use changes. Healthy watersheds with natural land cover and soil resources also provide vast carbon storage capabilities, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. Healthy watersheds also provide habitat for fish, amphibians, birds, and insects and stream corridors which provide a key connection across the landscape for animals and birds. Aside from the reduced costs of restoring impaired waters, there are many other economic benefits to protecting and conserving healthy watersheds. Healthy watersheds preserve recreation opportunities such as fishing and water-related recreation (e.g. boating) and contribute to tourism (e.g., hiking and birding). Vulnerability to floods, fires, and other natural disasters is minimized, thereby reducing costs to communities. Similarly, by protecting aquifer recharge zones and surface water sources, costs of drinking water treatment may be reduced.

That said, it is important to also be aware that economic development is crucial to a province or territory’s future. Expansion of resource activities like those likely to occur in the Peel Watershed will create numerous jobs, both for local inhabitants and for those migrating from elsewhere in Canada. The materials gained from these operations will help stimulate the processing sector and boost trade. The ripple effects in local communities (which will also grow) will be seen in commercial and residential projects as well. Social programs and facilities (schools, health care centres, etc.) will also have to accompany these growing towns.

The point is that a balanced approach is required to make the most of the region for human benefit, while ensuring that an ecological world view is maintained to adequately protect the natural systems present.

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