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SOURCE: The Narwhal
DATE: December 11, 2020
SNIP: The Indian River watershed, which used to provide “sweeping” wetland habitat south of Dawson City, Yukon, has been all but destroyed by placer mining, Darren Taylor, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation’s director of natural resources, told the territory’s water board during a recent virtual hearing.

The time for Yukon to protect its last remaining wetlands is running out, Taylor said.“We are reaching a tipping point, beyond which there’s no turning back,” he warned. “Part of ourselves dies when our relationship with the land is disrupted.”

Placer miners scoop rocks and gravel from streams and river beds in a search for gold. It’s a destructive process that disturbs water quality, leading to breathing, feeding and reproductive problems for fish. Placer mining and the piles of waste rock it creates can severely damage the unique riparian ecosystems that act as bridges between land and water.

Placer mining, which is regulated under an act written in the early 1900s, before its ecological impacts were well understood, is seen as a low-cost way for operators to enter the mining business without having to shoulder the costs of starting a larger mine.

Although placer miners must receive a water licence from the Yukon Water Board to operate, there is no legislation in the territory that protects wetlands or their potential disturbance from mining.

If that doesn’t change soon, the territory’s wetlands could be whittled away by mining until they’re gone for good, Randi Newton, conservation coordinator with the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), told The Narwhal.

“We’re in real danger of pushing these ecosystems past their breaking point,” she said.

Not only do wetlands filter water and provide crucial habitat for moose, caribou and fish, they also act as carbon sinks. According to a 2017 report by the Boreal Songbird Initiative, peatlands, a form of wetland, hold at least 147 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 736 years of Canada’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions. About one-quarter of the world’s wetlands are in Canada’s boreal forest, covering a landmass of 1.19 million square kilometres — an area that is larger than Ontario, the report states.

As The Narwhal recently reported in its Carbon Cache series, carbon-rich landscapes are valuable contributors to Canada’s climate action goals — but only if they are protected from disturbance and destruction.