Hiking in the Yukon. Image: Pat Morrow
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"I BELIEVE in connected landscapes; so connected that my children can walk from one point to another."
Chris Bunting, Y2Y Supporter since 2007

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Healing the Peace River Break

Y2Y is working with partners throughout northeastern B.C. to put this new environmental hot spot on the radar

Did you know that northern British Columbia’s (BC) Peace River Break region is challenging Alberta’s oil sands area as the poster child for industrial-caused change to the environment?

Spanning the narrowest part of the Rockies, the Peace River Break is a key connection between Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks and the Muskwa- Kechika area of BC, and vital to the larger Y2Y vision. Sadly the landscape is being hammered by development, and few know about it.

Y2Y is working to get this environmental hot spot on the radar. Fortunately we have a growing base of donors and partners who are as passionate about protecting the integrity of this landscape as we are.

Keeping Secrets

“The Peace River Break is one of Canada’s best kept secrets,” says Juri Peepre, Y2Y’s Project Manager. “For decades it has been BC’s environmental sacrificial lamb, where rampant industrial development in the form of oil and gas, shale gas, coalbed methane and mining, wind farms and dams are changing this area into a highly industrialized landscape.”

“Individually, these projects may not lead to the loss of a species or pollution of rivers, making it easier to keep the situation under the public radar, but together that is exactly what they are doing,” he adds.

Photo: Wayne Sawchuk

The proposed Site C Dam on the Peace River, which is expected to flood a 51 mile (83 km) section of this spectacular waterway, is attracting media attention to the area, but reporters are not exposing what is happening to the region as a whole.

While local conservation groups and First Nations are using their resources to oppose specific projects like Site C, Y2Y is leading the effort to look at the larger 17 million acres (70,000 square kilometer) Peace region from the 30,000- foot perspective.

The First Step to Change

In March Y2Y and the University of Northern British Columbia’s Natural Resources and Environmental Studies Institute hosted a conference ‘Protected or in Peril?’ to look at the values, challenges and opportunities to plan for conservation through the area.

“We wanted to highlight the urgency of the situation to as many people as possible, from government agencies and local politicians to farmers and academics,” says Peepre. “More importantly, we wanted to paint a picture of the region that was based in science.”

Not So Picture Perfect

The results from one study conducted by Peter Lee, Executive Director of Global Forest Watch Canada, surprised everyone. Commissioned by the David Suzuki Foundation and West Moberly First Nations, Lee mapped the industrial land uses and changes in the Peace.

The number of wells swelled from 15 in 1950 to 16,267 in 2011. There are some 8,517 petroleum and natural gas facilities in the area, 15% of these are within 500m of a major lake or stream. If all the roads, pipelines and seismic lines were strung together it would go around the world more than four times.

“The conclusion is that present levels of industrial caused disturbances and projected future levels are very high, even in comparison to other major industrial projects such as Canada’s oil sands,” says Lee. “Even I was surprised by this discovery.”

Living Consequences

No one sees the consequences of this development more than the First Nations who rely on the land and wildlife for their sustenance.

This cow bison had to be put down after she got herself stuck in the Fontas area. Photo: Chief Roland Wilson

“We are no longer able to hunt caribou due to their low numbers,” explains Chief Roland Willson, of West Moberly First Nations. “The Moberly Caribou herd shrunk from 190 head a few years ago to a mere 23 today, and the Burnt Pine herd was wiped out.”

“All three of the region’s rivers and reservoir as well as its tributaries are polluted,” adds Chief Willson. The fish in the Williston Reservoir, created by the W.A.C. Bennett dam on the Peace River, are poisoned with methyl mercury, and the issue extends into the tributaries fished by the members of West Moberly First Nations.

Unaware of this situation, the community has been eating contaminated fish as part of their main diet. Nearby, selenium from coal mines is being dumped into the Murray and Pine Rivers.

The Take Home Message

“The good news is it’s not too late,” emphasizes Peepre.

“There is still a narrow, but relatively intact and wild corridor along the spine of the Rockies through the Peace region that presents opportunities for conservation and viable habitat for wide-ranging species. If we act now, we can still protect the connection.”

We need to do better managing human use and development as a whole.

For its part, Y2Y has led the work to create a shared conservation vision for the Peace, and set out specific goals for action. We are working with partners to undertake the scientific research to guide our decisions.

“We are in the early stages of this campaign,” says Peepre, “but the foundation is set to shine a light on this issue and heal the Peace River Break.”