Province needs a 50-year vision to protect wilderness and
By James Walker, Times Colonist July 24, 2011
The province's auditor general has highlighted the need for improvement in the monitoring of environmental assessment projects and much more due diligence.
Even with such improvements, questions remain about the credibility of the assessment process.
The "elephant in the room" for many is still the impact projects create by their physical presence in pristine areas or high-value habitats for wildlife. The assessment process assumes that development is good as long as the project design and operation are technically sound.
British Columbians are realizing that even a "good" technical project can have a negative impact if it is in the wrong place. If an unsuitable development were suggested for a residential neighbourhood, many people would oppose it, their arguments usually dealing with impacts on lifestyle, neighbourhood ambience and community values, not technical issues.
Resource developments may be sited anywhere on Crown land, and such values are rarely considered even if the environmental and wilderness quality are extremely high. And while we may have technical ways to handle construction procedures and pollution abatement, we just assume that wildlife will adapt to change.
Whether it is a pipeline, salmon farm or independent power project, many British Columbians do not want all the remaining pristine areas accessed and the wildlife disturbed, no matter what the economic benefits or technical assurances. Government seems unable to comprehend that many want the few remaining pristine areas left in their undeveloped, "super natural" state.
How can a technically sound project be bad for wildlife?
Development always means increased access, and not just for the developer. With oil and gas extraction, a successful project will usually mean more expansion on the site or ancillary development on adjacent lands.
Even when a development has outlived its useful life, the area may be opened up for subdivision, resort development, etc. It becomes easily accessible for recreationalists and even such legitimate uses, if excessive, can pose problems. Control of problem animals around a work site can also result in excesses.
Individually, these are not disasters and separate impacts may be small and manageable. But cumulative impacts may add up to a level of disturbance such that an area is no longer viable habitat. At one time the Okanagan was prime habitat for grizzlies, wolves and other wilderness species - largely gone now, even in the remaining "outback" of these areas.
We need resource development, and we all realize how heavily the province depends on it and that the reasonable demands of humans must always come first. But if we continue with the "open season" on development, we have to stop the pretense that this province will always be "Super, natural B.C." and a paradise for wildlife.
We are facing an ecological crossroads. If you are satisfied with black bears, deer, raccoons, Canada geese and other adaptable species, don't worry. But if your image of British Columbia conjures up of millions of salmon along with healthy populations of grizzly bears, cougars, wolves, caribou, spotted owls and other wilderness species, be concerned.
The 2010 Olympics would not have been the success they were without the millions spent on up-front planning. And yet government has largely abandoned the type of land-use planning required to keep British Columbia and its wildlife super and natural.
The government seems to wait until things go wrong and then comes up with just enough money to get it through to the next audit, task force or election.
Money is rarely allocated up front to avoid the problem in the first place. We wait until 1,500 species are at risk and then we wring our hands because by then, only heroic and costly measures will suffice. It is poor ecology, poor economics and poor government stewardship.
"Super, natural B.C." needs a provincial grand vision for what wilderness and wildlife should look like in 50 years. Knowledgeable people are exploring this concept, but government seems disinterested.
Improvements will only come with adequate inventory and planning similar to the now-defunct Land and Resource Management Planning of the 1990s, and with decision process that considers wilderness values, public aspirations and cultural concerns, not just technicalities.
We need an ongoing dialogue with the public through social media about what the province should look like in 2061. And when we have that vision, we have to move intentionally and purposefully to implement it, rather than leave our future to the whims of developers and the limitations of the assessment process.
James Walker was formerly assistant deputy minister in the provincial Ministry of
Environment, and before that director of wildlife.