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Milk creek, fed with runoff from the glaciated valleys of the Mount MacDonald massif, merges with Snake River in northern Yukon. (Peter Mather)
Milk creek, fed with runoff from the glaciated valleys of the Mount MacDonald massif, merges with Snake River in northern Yukon. (Peter Mather)

How long will Canada's final frontier stay wild? Add to ...

Imagine for a moment that you are on a road trip across the country. Fed-up with honking horns, neon signs and busy byways, you swerve at the Rockies, and suddenly find yourself following the spine of the continent north toward the land of the midnight sun. What you seek is more notion than actual location, a refuge: the frontier.

On and on you drive, past Whitehorse and Dawson, until the road ends, and you start walking. Finally you pause, just as the great American Cordillera rises from the Beaufort Sea - a chain of peaks that runs 15,000 kilometres to the windswept pampas of Patagonia. You see no roads, no settlements, no industrial development. Here, in the heart of the Peel Watershed, you are a speck in a vast and untamed land.

The Peel's mountain landscape encompasses 68,000 square kilometres (or 14 per cent of the Yukon Territory), and within its boundaries flow a constellation of big, wild rivers that is unmatched on the planet: Snake, Wind, Hart, Bonnet Plume and many more. Through boreal forest that cloaks the shores wander four separate caribou herds (including the largest intact group of woodland caribou anywhere). Plenty of other superlatives can define the land - numbers of threatened species, size of nesting grounds, health of carnivore populations - but to trot out such statistics misses the point. The Peel is wild. Period.

For the time being. On July 25, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission will release to the public its final recommended land use plan (the ultimate decisions will be made by the Yukon government). While almost unheard of in southern circles, the future of the Peel is a huge deal up north.

There is a tendency to assume that the northern wilderness remains inviolate, as immense and unalterable as the Pacific. That no matter how badly we mess up our lands to the south, there is an Eden waiting. That if bears or falcons or wolverines are forced from their habitats down here, they still have a home in the bountiful and limitless North. That is not the case. We are running out of frontier.

When I first arrived in Whitehorse, 18 years ago, the land I stumbled into indeed felt immutable. Beyond each vast valley lay another and another. The sun shone day and night. Gold-rush spirit hung in the air, a reminder that man was born to be free. My heart soared. But I was young, and naive.

The paradox of wilderness is that while rugged, harsh and merciless, it is also profoundly vulnerable. In the years since, roads have spread across the Yukon like cracks on a windshield, thousands of kilometres built in the span of a generation. Seismic lines - cut in the search for oil and gas reserves - are scribbled atop even the most remote lands. Thousands upon thousands of new mining claims were staked in 2010 alone.

With the south-central Yukon scratched over, eyes are looking further north. For decades, penny-stock speculators have poked around in the Peel, searching for mineral riches: uranium, copper, oil, gas, lead, zinc, coal-bed methane, iron ore. So far, no one has found much. The only significant claim is held by Chevron - a low-grade iron-ore deposit that, due to its inconvenient location, would require billions to extract. Hydrocarbon reserves are modest, but economically fruitless unless a major pipeline - such as the proposed Mackenzie - is built nearby. Random incursions into the region - winter roads, airstrips, fuel caches and exploration camps - are on the rise. They represent water lapping at the top of the dam.

For decades conservation groups have been warning the region needs protection. First nations (who are generally supportive of mining initiatives within their traditional territories) agree, unanimous in their demand for complete protection of the entire watershed. Yukon residents, an oft-polarized population, reveal rare consensus when polled on the Peel. A 2009 poll by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society found 75 per cent feel half the watershed should be protected.

After seven years of hearings, deliberations and information gathering, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission released its draft recommendations last year. Putting forward what they termed "a conservative, cautious plan that preserves the maximum number of future options for society," the commission recommended protecting just over 80 per cent of the watershed. Mining and conservation are simply incompatible within the Peel, it concluded, and a watered-down compromise would satisfy no one. A standoff looms. Ultimately, after territorial elections this fall, the Yukon government will face a difficult decision: ignore or accept the recommendations of the commission it formed.

Setting aside this vast chunk of land, to preserve our frontier, is difficult but necessary. The government of Yukon needs and deserves support- perhaps in the form of a federal legacy fund, akin to the precedent-setting Clayoquot legacy fund, which helped preserve significant old growth on the West Coast, another frontier.

Chevron should take the first step, and release its claims on the low-quality Crest Iron Ore deposit for the greater public good. Such actions also have precedent: Amoco Canada donated its oil and gas leases to preserve Alberta's Whalesback wilderness.

Whatever mosaic of protection is finally arrived at, the bottom line is that no roads or industrial development should be allowed in the Peel. A wild and untamed frontier remains intrinsic to Canadian identity. That once-limitless bounty on the edge of the map - and on the edge of our psyche -is running out. The frontier, which gave unstintingly to our country as it came of age, needs protection. It can't be pushed back any further. There's nothing over the next rise.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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