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Yukon government preserved fraction of watershed, ignored recommendation:lawyer

WHITEHORSE - Seven years of research and consultation led a commission to recommend that most of the Peel River watershed should be protected but the Yukon government opted instead to preserve less than a third of the area, says a lawyer representing First Nations and environmentalists.

"The recommended plan determined that 80 per cent of the Peel watershed should remain wild and that 20 per cent of the Peel watershed should be open to development by way of oil and gas exploration and mining exploration," Thomas Berger told Yukon Supreme Court.

Berger's remarks Monday kicked off the start of a packed hearing, which will decide the fate of an expanse of the northern Yukon wilderness.

In January, the territorial government rejected the proposal of the Peel Watersheed Planning Commission, saying only 29 per cent of the area would be protected.

The First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun and the Tr'ondek Hwech'in, as well as the Yukon Conservation Society and the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), are suing the government over its plan to protect such a small portion of the region.

The government argues it has the final say over the region's land use and doesn't have to accept the commission's recommendations.

First Nations and environmental groups disagree.

The roots of the Peel River watershed issue date back to 1993, when the government of Canada, the Yukon government and Yukon First Nations signed the so-called Umbrella Final Agreement, through which the First Nations surrendered title to a large part of the land.

"The outcome of the case will depend on the interpretation of the Umbrella Final Agreement," Berger said.

Before proceedings began Monday, Jimmy Johnny, an elder who lives in Mayo, said he felt nervous.

"This is a big case," he said. "I never thought it would come down to this."

Johnny first visited the watershed in 1958, when he was 13 years old. It's traditional territory — home to campsites and burial grounds — that his ancestors travelled across for years.

"It's very important to us as human beings, especially First Nations," Johnny said.

Karen Baltgailis, the outgoing executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society, said in an interview last week that the case will set a precedent for how land claims are interpreted across the North.

"What it will determine is whether governments can simply pay lip service to the land claims agreements or whether they will actually have to listen to the spirit and intent of those agreements."

Last week, Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale issued an unprecedented order allowing photos during the first five minutes of Monday's proceedings. As well, CPAWS was permitted to video inside the courtroom from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the opening day of the case.

In his ruling, Veale set down a number of conditions for the photographers and videographer, including a requirement the material recorded not be used for reporting the proceedings, nor for satire or comedy, and that it not be sold.

The group said it would use the video footage for archival purposes. (Whitehorse Star)

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