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BONNET PLUME LAKE, YUKON—Sketching peaks shrouded in morning mist, Joyce Majiski squints up at bands of red blue and green all around her, searching for signs of our planet’s ancient enduring heartbeat.
In one of Canada’s last wilderness watersheds, a vast expanse where humans are still outsiders, the artist biologist and former river guide can hear the murmur of water spilling down a steep creek bed on the far side of this placid lake.
It’s fed by patches of melting snow that wind through scree deposited by a glacier that disappeared when the planet warmed at the end of the last Ice Age, leaving a bowl (“cirque”) carved out of the mountainside.
We are sitting on the edge of Bonnet Plume Lake, 1,153 metres above sea level, where the loudest sound is a late summer breeze.
The peace belies an epic conflict playing out across Canada’s North, where aboriginal people and environmental activists are pushing back against building pressures from a warming climate and the global demand for more resources.
High up a mountain towering over the lake, unceasing erosion has exposed coloured seams and mineral slope washes that arc across the cliffs, rising and falling in a cadence that speaks to Majiski of a world at risk.
“I love being in mountain country” she said as we watched ridges emerge from the slowly drifting mist. “To me, it’s like a pulse, almost like an EKG of the land. There’s something spiritual about that that draws me up. I want to see the ridges, and I want to walk up there. I want to know how they got there.”
Put a mining engineer in the artist’s place and odds are it’s a different picture.
The mountain reds she sees tell of iron oxide deposits. The blues and greens are azurite and malachite, indicators that these mountains, so remote that no one has bothered to name them, are loaded with copper ore.
To the mineral exploration teams closing in on the Peel, the most alluring hues are the colour of money.
Spanning more than 67,000 square kilometres and drained by seven major rivers, the Peel River watershed is an ancient, breathtaking landscape only slightly smaller than New Brunswick. This is a rare corner of an increasingly stressed planet.
For the most part, the Peel’s essence is not managed, extracted or trampled in the ceaseless march of human progress. It is largely left to be as it is.
That is unsettling to those who want more out of the Peel.
For the past six years, a six-member commission set up under land claims agreements with the region’s First Nations has been struggling to resolve conflicting visions of a land coveted by competing groups for its beauty, natural resources and untamed spirit.
It is a hunt for an elusive middle ground in one of the largest and most biodiverse wildernesses still intact in North America.
At the peak of the last Ice Age, roughly 30000 years ago, a large swath of what is now the Peel remained free of glaciers.
It was a vital corridor for early humans and animals like woolly mammoths, ground sloths (as big as today’s elephants) and giant beavers the size of black bears that moved back and forth across the Bering land bridge to Siberia.
Extinct lions and cheetahs roamed the Peel too, along with ancestors of modern mammals, including Dall sheep, caribou, elk and moose. The rich, still thriving biodiversity includes plant species found nowhere else in Canada.
All are under threat as the pressures of human progress bear down from the south and Yukoners argue over the fate of the Peel wilderness.
Compromise doesn’t please anyone completely, least of all the mining and energy companies exploring on the fringes of the watershed, eager to rush in if Yukon’s government opens the gates.
During a staking boom that began last year, three exploration camps with anywhere from 40 to 70 people in each camp have popped up near Bonnet Plume Lake, which sits on the eastern border of the wilderness.
Prospectors see a potential bonanza in iron ore, gold, uranium, zinc, lead and other minerals, along with natural gas and oil that lie beneath large areas of the pristine Peel.
They hope to find a sympathetic ear in the territory’s government, currently led by the conservative, pro-mining Yukon Party. The government has imposed a moratorium on staking new mineral claims or developing oil natural gas and coal rights in the Peel watershed while the land-use debate is sorted out.
Groups trying to protect the area want to put the Peel squarely in voters’ minds in the territorial election expected this fall. They have fresh leverage with the recent release of the commission’s final recommendations.
They propose varying degrees of protection for the Peel watershed. Only 55 per cent would receive permanent protection under the commission’s land-use plan.
Conceding a need for “flexibility in future land use options” the commission said 25 per cent of that conservation area should only be “give interim protection to be reviewed periodically.
So mining companies and others who want industrial development in the Peel could press their case again, presumably with more muscle as world mineral and energy resources dwindle in coming decades.
The remaining 20 per cent of the watershed would be declared what the commission calls “the working landscape, where a variety of land uses and new surface access can occur.”
“We believe that in the Peel this plan is a responsible approach that enables Yukoners to serve as stewards of this extraordinary landscape” commission chairman David Loeks wrote in his foreword to the final report issued July 25. “If this plan is accepted, future generations will salute our foresight.”
First Nations leaders, who had demanded protection for 100 per cent of the region, reluctantly agreed to support the compromise. So did groups such as the Yukon Conservation Society and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
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