Yukon gold rush isn't slowing but watershed raises concerns

Section:

Jason Unrau
National Post, Toronto
Sunday, May 13, 2012

http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/05/13/the-yukons-gold-rush-shows-no-si...

At the turn of the 19th century it played host to the famed Klondike Gold Rush that drew thousands to the rugged wilderness in search of riches, but now the Yukon entertains a newer, more modern kind of mining rush.

For the past two years, mineral exploration here has been through the roof, nearly half a billion dollars spent searching for the next motherlode of gold, silver, copper, zinc, molybdenum, or tungsten and nearly 200,000 claims staked.

“From July [2011] I flew 10 months worth of hard staking and we probably single-handedly staked 25 to 30,000 claims,” said Ben Drury, a pilot with Horizon Helicopters, one of the many charter services in the Yukon that benefited from the staking craze.

... Dispatch continues below ...



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"We'd show up at a remote location and there were piles and piles of staking posts stacked 6 feet high waiting for us, coming in a steady stream of Twin Otter [plane] loads, 500 posts at a time."

From there, Mr. Drury would ferry prospectors into even more remote areas to gobble up the territory's real estate ahead of the competition. Stakers like Billy Bromell were also ensconced in work, earning upwards of $500 per day driving stakes for a host of junior venture companies locked in a game so secretive that even Mr. Bromell didn't know who he was making claims for.

From this staking surge, today more than 20% of the Yukon's land mass is set aside for potential resource exploitation. If exploration continues at the same pace this season, that percentage could exceed more than 30. (By comparison, in Ontario -- whose hinterland is a comparable treasure trove of similarly coveted minerals -- just 6% has been reserved.)

It's this rampant activity that has environmentalists such as Lewis Rifkind, the Yukon Conservation Society's mining coordinator, concerned. Mr. Rifkind's watchdog role keeps him busy in consultancy on some projects before the territory's assessment branch, the Yukon Environment and Socio Economic Board, and public-advocacy duties like writing letters to the local newspapers in Whitehorse.

"You should see the map we've got; [staking] here is like watching a cancer spread," Mr. Rifkind said of a web-animated graphic on the society's website illustrating, in ominous black, a quick-time growth of mineral claims across the landscape.

"Hell, we all use minerals and metals but it's getting nutty out there. ... Outfitters are furious and tourists are paying for a wilderness experience you just don't get when you've got 30 helicopters buzzing around," he added.

It seems the only sanctuary from what Mr. Rifkind described as "rush-hour" helicopter traffic is in the Peel watershed, a remote 68,000-square-kilometre slice of the Yukon pie that by virtue of a staking moratorium, enacted during the end of an independent commission's deliberations to protect the region, kept exploration activity there at bay.

The Peel watershed's preservation from further mining surveys -- Chevron's Crest Iron deposit remains one of the largest in the world and is located inside the watershed -- has attracted attention from the likes of David Suzuki, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the Yukon Conservation Society, and several First Nations, who lobby vigorously for its protection.

Already there are three producing mines in the Yukon; Capstone's Minto copper mine, Yukon Zinc's Wolverine mine, and Alexco Resources' Bellekeno silver mine, a project that is part reclamation, part exploitation of new resources locked in a 230-square-kilometre area with nearly 100 years of silver mining history.

Yunnan Chihong Zinc, a Chinese firm, signed a deal with Canada's Selwyn Resources in 2009 and the new joint-venture, Selwyn-Chihong, will spend more than $120-million to get a massive lead zinc mine into production.

Those hoping to start the Yukon's first hard-rock gold mine in 10 years include Victoria Gold -- its Eagle Project is already in the assessment stage -- and Northern Freegold, whose Freegold Mountain Project could recover huge quantities of silver, copper, molybdenum, and gold.

In October, the pro-mining Yukon Party government, a conservative force in territorial politics, won its third majority mandate and has rejected an independent commission's recommendation that 80% of the Peel watershed be protected from mining exploration and development. Add the fact that the commission's proposed ban on new roads inside the watershed would mean essentially 98% of the region, according to the Yukon Chamber of Mines, would become off-limits.

Brad Cathers, the Yukon's Minister of Energy Mines and Resources, blamed "over-the-top rhetoric" for clouding debate on the Peel, and he believes that a better plan can satisfy all interests.

"It definitely is a polarizing issue for some people," said Mr. Cathers, adding that the government extended the staking moratorium until September. "At this point we're in the final stages of the process. The commission submitted their proposal, that's been the subject of some political debate, and we have been clear about the fact that the plan should be modified."

Mike Dehn, executive director of CPAWS' Yukon chapter, disagrees. Mr. Dehn said the Yukon government is obligated under the Umbrella Final Agreement -- a modern-day treaty ratified in 2000 that settled 11 of 14 outstanding First Nations land claims, established a project assessment branch and set in motion seven land-use plans, of which the Peel is one -- to acquiesce to the planning commission's vision for the Peel.

"Each of the First Nation parties assumed this was going to a co-operative process," said Mr. Dehn. "The Yukon Party was perfidious in its comments about the Peel during the election. ... The whole idea of land use planning is it comes from what we and the First Nations promised each other" during the UFA negotiations."

Simon Mervyn, chief of the Nacho Nyak Dun -- one of four First Nations with a say on what happens inside the watershed -- said he's a patient man when it comes to deliberations on the fate of the Peel and spurns any notion his First Nation is anti-development.

"We're not opposed to development to any degree of the imagination," Chief Mervyn said, noting a prosperous relationship between the Nacho Nyak Dun and Alexco, whose Bellekeno silver mine operates on the First Nations' traditional territory.

But Chief Mervyn remains relatively firm on the contentious watershed: "Peel is closed. Our political position is we'd like to see 100% protected, but we're happy with 80%. ... I don't want to have bulldozers running around up there. The watershed is our playground, our bank, our larder, and our temple, and we aim to look after it."

Whether Chief Mervyn, the three other First Nations, and environmentalists get their way, remains to be seen. Thhat 98% of the Peel is Crown land gives the Yukon government the final say.

For Rob McIntyre, a geologist and Yukon resident who negotiated the access and benefits agreement with Nacho Nyak Dun for Alexco and handled the company's permitting applications, said debate over the Peel has been skewed from the get-go.

"If we start with the idea that we shouldn't go into an area" to explore or mine it "because we're not responsible enough to mitigate negative impacts. ... Well, I simply reject that. If that were the case, then we shouldn't be mining anywhere," he said.

Mining messes from an era void of regulations are evident in the Yukon -- from the estimated billion-dollar cleanup of Faro to Keno Hill, where Alexco is now engaged in reclamation and mining -- and are "the kind of stuff that people tend to look back on with a very anachronistic view of what occurred," said Mr. McIntyre.

"It's a different industry now than what was and it's a different society than what was," he said. "The mining industry is nothing more or less than the product of the society it springs from. Society has changed and so has the industry."

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Sona Discovers Potential High-Grade Gold Mineralization
at Blackdome in British Columbia -- 13.6g over 1.5 Meters

From a Company Press Release
November 22, 2011

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- With its latest surface diamond drilling program at its 100-percent-owned, formerly producing Blackdome gold mine in southern British Columbia, Sona Resources Corp. has discovered a potentially high-grade gold-mineralized area, with one hole intersecting 13.6 grams of gold in 1.5 meters of core drilling.

"We intersected a promising new mineralized zone, and we feel optimistic about the assay results," says Sona's president and CEO, John P. Thompson. "We have undertaken an aggressive exploration program that has tested a number of target zones. Our discovery of this new gold-bearing structure is significant, and it represents a positive development for the company."

Sona aims to bring its permitted Blackdome mill back into production over the next year and a half, at a rate of 200 tonnes per day, with feed from the formerly producing Blackdome mine and the nearby Elizabeth gold deposit property. A positive preliminary economic assessment by Micon International Ltd., based on a gold price of $950 per ounce over eight years, has estimated a cash cost of $208 per tonne milled, or $686 per gold ounce recovered.

For the company's complete press release, please visit:

http://www.sonaresources.com/_resources/news/SONA_NR18_2011-opt.pdf