Ottawa quietly opens protected Arctic wilderness to proposed mining
The federal government is facing a lawsuit after quietly opening a vast tract of a once-protected Arctic wilderness to mining claims.
Ottawa’s move shocked northern aboriginals and environmentalists, and land-claim negotiators say the decision to no longer bar prospectors from a pristine and much-loved part of the Northwest Territories endangers the entire plan for protected areas in the Eastern Arctic.
“This is unprecedented and if it’s not reversed it will lead to the end of the protected-areas strategy,” said Chris Reid, legal adviser to the Dehcho First Nation, which filed a challenge to the government’s decision in Federal Court last week.
The area in question is the Horn Plateau which has been a candidate for designation as a national wildlife area for more than a decade.
In 2002, Ottawa agreed to temporarily block filing of any new mineral claims on the land while talks continued. That ban had been renewed every two years — until this fall when an order in council maintained protection on surface rights but withdrew it for subsurface rights.
Prospectors are now free to enter the area and stake it for mineral claims. That creates a third-party interest that some say will at the very least make it harder to protect the area.
The plateau is thought to have significant potential for diamonds, base metals, uranium and energy.
Reid said the federal move breaks a promise made last May by former Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl to renew protection for several proposed conservation areas at a meeting with Dehcho Grand Chief Sam Gargan.
“The grand chief asked, ‘Will you extend them for five years?’
“I remember it clearly. (Strahl) looked at his advisers, shrugged and said, ‘Well, we’ll take a look at that but certainly they’ll be renewed for two years.’”
Reid said there was no warning or consultation about any changed status for the Horn Plateau.
Talks to protect the area began in 1992. In 2007, Ottawa agreed to disallow mineral staking in 25,000 square kilometres as discussions progressed.
A group of aboriginals, government officials, environmentalists and industry representatives eventually agreed to whittle that down to 14,000 square kilometres to allow some mineral exploration.
The plateau is a vast stretch of boreal forest, uplands and wetlands. It is home to endangered species such as woodland caribou and wolverines, provides important migratory bird habitat and contains the headwaters of three rivers.
It is also culturally significant to area aboriginals.
“Although we do not want confrontation with your government or with the mining industry, we cannot stand by and allow this integral part of our homeland and watershed to be destroyed,” wrote Gargan in a Nov. 10 letter to current Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan.
Any signs of mineral exploration on the land will be opposed, he wrote.
“The (Dehcho First Nation) will monitor activity and remove any prospecting stakes found. In addition, anyone found to be in (the area) for the purposes of staking or exploring for minerals will be considered a trespasser and will be dealt with accordingly.”
Reid said removing the ban on staking encourages prospecting, because explorers can now use geological information gathered during the protection process.
Rob Powell of the World Wildlife Fund said the federal move could have implications for six other areas in the N.W.T. that are in various stages of becoming protected.
“Part of the understanding is that while we are engaged in these consultations, the areas will have interim protection so that the opportunity for potential protection isn’t lost along the way,” he said.
Tom Hoefer of the N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines said the government move came as a surprise. He said his group is advising industry that the region’s future is still in question.
“Go in there with your eyes open if you’re going to go in there,” he said.
Still, Hoefer pointed out that a mineral claim is a long way from a mine development.
“Communities have a lot of power these days, even over open Crown land.”