National Geographic : 2014 Feb
yukon 103 his crews have staked more than 55,000 claims, enough to cover a landmass larger than Jamaica. Ryan uses the right-side screen to track his gold- related holdings, which notch up in value when- ever an economic jolt sends investors fleeing to precious metals. As the material needs of the world’s seven bil- lion people continue to grow, the rush to exploit the Yukon’s exceptionally rich resources—gold, zinc, copper, and more—has brought prosper- ity to a once forsaken corner of the continent. But the boom has brought to the fore a growing tension between those who would keep one of North America’s last great wildernesses unbro- ken and those whose success depends on dig- ging it up. “They’re blanket-staking the whole territory,” says Trish Hume, a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Though Hume does mapping work that’s mining related, she worries that the Yukon is reaching a tipping point where the environmental and cultural costs of min- ing outweigh the benefits. “ The people coming up and taking out minerals aren’t asking what happens to the animals we hunt, the fish we eat, the topsoil that holds it all together. And when the boom is over, how does our tiny population afford to clean up the toxic mess?” larger than California but with only 37,000 inhabitants, the Yukon drives an immense wedge between Alaska and the bulk of Canada. From its north coast on the Beaufort Sea, it stretches to the south and south- east, taking in tremendous expanses of lake-dot- ted tundra, forests, mountains, wetlands, and river systems. Walled off by some of Canada’s highest peaks and largest glaciers, the territory is almost completely unsettled, its sparse popula- tion scattered over a few small communities and the capital, Whitehorse. It is also rich in wild- life, an Arctic Serengeti whose extreme seasonal shifts beckon vast herds of caribou and other animals into motion. Among its wildest quar- ters is the Peel watershed, an immense wilder- ness, which drains an area larger than Scotland. A bird’s-eye view takes in only a fraction of the vast Faro Mine Complex, once the world’s largest open-pit lead-zinc mine and now the target of a costly taxpayer-funded cleanup.