Emotion and economics clashed Wednesday in Whitehorse, as First Nation elders, environmentalists and mining industry officials debated how best to manage the Peel River watershed.

About 170 people attended Wednesday night's public meeting to give their input on a proposed management plan for the watershed, which covers about 67,000 square kilometres of wilderness in central Yukon.

Drafted by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, the plan calls for 80 per cent of the watershed area to be protected from mineral staking and other industrial development.

But many of those who attended the Whitehorse meeting called for the entire area to be off-limits to development, while those who want to explore for minerals in the area say 80 per cent protection is already too much.

Restricted access

Yukon Chamber of Mines president Carl Schulze, who attended the meeting, said the "integrated management areas" being proposed in the plan would further restrict access to the watershed.

"When you read through it and you incorporate the disallowance of roads in four of the five [integrated management areas], it really works out to de facto 97 per cent protection," Schulze said.

"If you have claims, but you can't eventually access them by roads, they're worthless."

But those who support 100 per cent protection of the watershed have said the mining industry has had 80 years in the Peel, but no mineral deposit has ever been developed there.

Joe Tetlichi, who grew up near the Peel River, said First Nations — not governments and industry — should be managing the watershed area.

"When is it going to stop? When are people going to start saying, 'Let the aboriginal people alone?'" Tetlichi said at the meeting. "Let them practice their tradition and culture."

Stringent rules needed: chamber

Schulze said environmental protection and mineral exploration can co-exist in the watershed, but how the area is protected depends on how governments regulate activity.

"What we would consider protection is that you have a stringent regulatory regime that bases its mitigation on sensitivity of the area," he said.

That regulatory regime could include having reclamation plans and funds in place for when mining operations there are complete, Schulze said.

But Chief Eddie Taylor of the Tr'ondek Hw'echin First Nation in Dawson City, Yukon, said the Peel River watershed must be fully protected because mining companies already have access to the rest of the territory.

"We're only asking for this particular area to be protected -- to protect the water, to protect the land, to protect all the animals that are in the watershed," Taylor said.

Some who attended the public meeting argued that mining in the Peel watershed would bring short-term economic benefit, but preserving the wilderness would build value there over the long run.

Right plan for watershed: group

Among those watching the Peel watershed debate is the Yukon Fish and Game Association, which has been trying to determine its own position on the issue.

Association president John Carney said after listening to Wednesday's public meeting, he feels the Peel Watershed Planning Commission has drafted the right plan for the area.

"Any area you look at in the Yukon where industry has developed roads, wildlife has been pushed back and it has had a very detrimental effect on fish and wildlife," Carney said.

"So we support the work of the commission and we think we can support this going to the government the way it stands right now."

The Yukon government is working with three Yukon First Nations and the Gwich'in Tribal Council in the N.W.T. to consult with the public about the draft management plan.