At the beginning of 1896, only several thousand non-Indian miners, traders and missionaries lived in the Yukon. Two years later, the territory was overrun with tens of thousands of newcomers who quickly wrought serious and far ranging changes to the land. The federal government did little to ensure environmental protection.
Alaska and the Klondike became mainly places to exploit, reaping the harvest and ignoring the consequences, with little regard to the environmental impact. Newcomers, many of whom risked their lives to reach the golden promise, were far too occupied with the race for gold to entertain any thoughts that they be having a negative impact on the landscape.
In Canada, the Minister of Indian Affairs took the view that the Yukon gold rush would be a short lived event. He argued that the Yukon territory was good for nothing except mining. The government continued a long lasting policy of issuing free miners certificates which opened the Yukon to unlimited numbers of prospectors. Once a claim was established, a miner had unrestricted use of the site, including timber and water resources. The government’s primary concern was to transform the Yukon into a major mining center that would generate maximum revenues for the federal treasury.
The arrival of tens of thousands of gold-seekers caught government officials off guard. While most accounts of the gold rush days are portrayed in a positive light, the gold rush brought huge environmental changes to the landscape in a relatively short period of time. Native flora and fauna ecosystems were threatened with destruction. A multitude of environmental problems arose – soil erosion, salinity, water quality decline, growth of noxious weeds and extinction of native animals, just to name a few.
Prior to the gold rush the forests had been a backdrop, subject only to natural cycles of disease, fire and wind damage. Cutting had been limited due to the modest requirements of the indigenous peoples and the few non-native settlers. Suddenly, the forest became a valuable commodity to the gold seekers and their settlements. As well as being the major source of fuel for cooking, heating, and melting permafrost, its timbers were vital for boat construction, cabins, dams, dredges, flumes, railway ties, roads, steamship fuel and underground mining supports.
By 1898, timber was already scarce at Lakes Tagish, Bennett and Marsh.
A miner needed very little initial wealth to seek and mine placer gold. With a few hand tools and the willingness to work, miners in Alaska and the Yukon tore up and muddied creeks, stripped hillsides of timber, and depleted wildlife populations. The once crystalline waters became thick and foul with gold-washing. The impact of placer mining on riparian vegetation in the creeks resulted in a decline of various fish species. Much of the ground was first worked by individual miners, then by early dredges, then by more modern dredges. The extraction of gold by large scale hydraulic mining, drift mining and dredging after 1896 caused immediate and irreversible detrimental effects.
The biggest losers were the Natives as they saw a drastic reduction in moose, caribou, and small game as prospectors hunted these for food. In many areas, gold mining resulted in the destruction of salmon streams. Contact with white men also had consequences like drinking and disease. In the short term, the Tlingit and the Koyukon peoples prospered as guides, packers and from selling food and supplies to the prospectors. In the longer term, however, the Han people living in the Klondike especially suffered from the environmental damage on the rivers and forests, as well as from the creation of Dawson. The Han, who once fished at the site of Dawson, experience chaos and dislocation, losing a key source of cash and trade goods. Their population had already begun to decline after the discovery of gold along Fortymile River in the 1880’s but dropped catastrophically after their move to the reserve, a result of contaminated water and smallpox. The Han found only a few ways to benefit economically from the gold rush but their fishing and hunting grounds were largely destroyed.