Miners are stunned and environmentalists cheering over a northern regulator's recommendation that a uranium exploration project be denied because it threatens the spiritual and cultural well-being of the area's Dene people.
The Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board says Ur-Energy's (TSX: URE) plan to drill up to 20 holes near the Thelon River should not proceed under any circumstances.
"Although the proposed development is physically small, the potential cultural impacts are not," says the board in a written decision.
It is only the second time in the board's history that it has dismissed a project outright.
It's now up to federal Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice to decide whether to accept the recommendation, which throws doubt on the future of hundreds of mineral leases and claims in a vast area of the Northwest Territories.
"It's a major concern if you can't run a minimal-impact exploration program," Mike Vaydik of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Chamber of Mines said. "Mineral exploration in the southeast part of the N.W.T. is basically stopped."
Monte Hummel of the World Wildlife Fund agreed.
"This stands to have a serious impact on not just this project," he said. "That's what the people who live there want."
Ur-Energy described the decision as a delay.
In a release, company president Bob Boberg said Ur-Energy is disappointed with the review board's recommendation and "will continue to pursue any and all approaches that will allow us to advance exploration."
Boberg said Ur-Energy would discuss the recommendation with Prentice.
The Thelon Basin is considered one of Earth's last pristine wildernesses.
During hearings on the project, one ecotourism outfitter said he'd spotted six grizzlies, 12 moose, 20 wolves, 100 muskox and 100,000 caribou on a single trip.
Residents from the community of Lutsel K'e described the area as "the place where God began" and "the heart and soul of the Dene."
"(The) Thelon River is Thaydene Nene. Thaydene Nene is our ancestors," elder Bernadette Lockheart said in her testimony.
Even a single exploration camp is too much for such hallowed ground, testified 13-year-old Michael Lafferty.
"If you do find uranium, you'll try to get it, right?" he asked. "It's better just not to check. Just leave it there."
The area drained by the Thelon River, which flows from the N.W.T. into Nunavut, has been the subject of an intense staking rush in recent years.
At least 40 companies are prodding the tundra for uranium after prices for the silvery metal grew from $7 a pound a few years ago to over $100 now. They have registered hundreds of prospecting permits, claims and mineral leases - 1,000 such dispositions on the N.W.T. side alone.
Nunavut has identified 405 prospecting permits that may conflict with ecological values. Some permits overlap proposed conservation areas or territorial parks.
The area is also subject to an agreement between Ottawa and the Akaitcho Dene not to make any decisions on the land for five years pending a land-claim settlement. That interim land withdrawal is currently awaiting cabinet approval.
As well, part of the region has been singled out by Environment Minister John Baird for the creation of East Arm National Park near the east arm of Great Slave Lake.
The board says Canada's mining regulations contribute to the problem by allowing prospectors to stake claims before consulting area Aboriginals, and then giving those claims precedence in any subsequent land talks.
As the quickening pace of northern industrial development runs head-on into land claims and environmental concerns, it's time the federal government dealt with tough land-use questions, said Hummel.
"As you delay more and more, mineral permits of one kind or another are being issued," he said. "It's fragmenting and reducing the area the (Dene) said they wanted to protect."