“Mountains are sentinels for larger global change” (Zac Robinson, U. Of Alberta)
While the most notorious environmental event in BC this spring may appear to be the federal acquisition of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which the media pitches as a confrontation between Alberta and BC, this political circus may just be a subtext to more important over-arching biological and environmental concerns. Indeed, the notorious media-focussed announcement of the prime mininister’s acquisition of a controversial pipeline in the name of “the national
interest”, has overshadowed the much-more important, if more matter-of-fact, release by the Alpine Club of Canada and the University of Alberta of the 2018 State of the Mountains Report,1 which underlines the fact that science knows no borders and is always in “the public interest.”
This important document comes in the wake of Australian research published the previous week in Science indicating that at least a third of global protected lands is under intense human pressure, and that its preservation depends primarily on the work of ENGOs.2 This is part of a succession of disturbing revelations that governments around the world are
announcing with great fanfare the creation of protected areas which bona fide scientists note are, “Just for show.”3 Brazil’s creation new “marine protected areas” in which drilling will be allowed is just one slightly more glaring example of many potential examples in which science is not simply not welcome in government,4 but rather has an uncertain relationship with
government. There appears to be a growing divorce between science and government, which is shifting science’s relationship with the public.
The practice of “Just for Show,” which is just as evident in the contradictions of Canada’s climate change plan as it is in BC’s renewed support of the LNG industry, 5 appears to be just part of a global trend. It is Orwellian “double-speak,” in which the public interest in the environment is becoming marginalized from political discourse. This was substantiated this month by yet another report pointing out that species decline in Australia is tacitly accelerated through a lack of government support for effective monitoring. 6 It is simply part of a growing trend in double-speak, bandying the notion that one can have one’s cake and eat it. This childish notion is only slightly less self-contradictiory than Brazil’s recent passage of legislation purporting to protect biodiversity with legislation which its own scientists note is simply a system of regulations aiming to frustrate biodiversity research when it is considered inconsistent with government and corporate interests.7 Under these new regulations, researchers undertaking biodiversity research face fines, jail terms and prosecutions, if they proceed without government permission. The biodiversity research permitting system itself is deliberately designed to act as a
roadblock. (Given current working conditions at the EPA, this Brazilian aberration could easily become a global norm.)
What is noteworthy in these examples is that, as in the case of the 2018 State of the Mountains Report, it is Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (i.e. ENGOs, in this case the Alpine Club of Canada) who have assumed the real leadership research responsibilities, in these difficult times, where government reponsibility is becoming ambiguous. Notwithstanding the opinion of Canada’s Science Advisor, Mona Nemer, if science does not bridge public aspirations its institutions are at the mercy of changing political whims.8 It is not government or industry that is providing public environmental leadership, but ad hoc ENGO’s. Whether it be in Canada, Australia, or Brazil, or for that matter anywhere in a world in which corporate interests are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from government interests, environmental leadership comes from ENGO’s who carry out research and publish reports on shoestring budgets. There is very little public funding for ENGO’s, who are often excluded or barred from government grant applications, or only considered if they have corporate or academic partners. As implied by the findings of the Australian report, in a world in which governments increasingly no longer assume
biodiversity monitoring, and universities rely extensively on government or corporate funding and therefore are largely constrained in the research that they will carry out, it is ENGO’s who still do the necessary independent science, and hopefully provide a bridge to government action:
“a number of species had “very effective” monitoring programs conducted by NGOs or Indigenous corporations, which covered a particular portion of the species’ range, but few species had monitoring that covered their entire range”9
It is of particular note in the 2018 State of the Mountains Report that while the report is supported by the University of Alberta, it is prepared by members, with the support of the general membership of the Alpine Club of Canada: “ produced by the ACC in collaboration with mountain researchers, community members, and partner organizations.” 10 It is this ability, and the urgent need, to remain independent from both industry and government that is giving rise to number of important independent “institutes” around North America, such as the Geos Institute in Ashland Oregon and the Hakai Institute in BC.11
Such contributions are important because they move beyond the media-driven political chicanery that dominates environmental discussions. They highlight the fact that the national community is concerned with the developing climate change impacts that are affecting the mountain ecosystems of Alberta and British Columbia. It leaves no doubt that the development of climate change in this century will be impacting the hydrology, the flora and fauna and the future
biodiversity of both provinces. It links our common future and interests, as Louis Pasteuer said: “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity.”
Contrary to mainstream thinking that dominates government and political discourse, the priority of the scientific community is not the economy – it is the state of the environment that makes possible and supports the economy. Without simple requirements such as a steady supply of clean water, provided to lower elevations by climate-dependent alpine environments, the cultural and economic foundations of our communities become unsustainable – as witnessed by the demise of California’s Salton Sea, which is a less publicized repetition of the tragedy of the Aral Sea and countless other saline lakes, such as Chile’s Lake Poopo12. As Shugar and Clague note in their assessment of glacier and river re-organization, where the data has been collected, we are witnessing the beginnings of major watersheds events happening “in a matter of days”. It is
clear that big changes are underway:
“There are numerous locations in the mountains of northwest North America where drainage will be perturbed, and possibly re-routed, as glaciers continue to retreat. Lakes that are currently dammed by glacier ice will disappear and the meltwater that feeds them will take different routes.”13
The problems raised by the Kinder Morgan pipeline should really be considered in that greater context, as they are in the State of the Mountains Report. The Kinder Morgan pipeline is not an “intractable” problem. It is a simple two-fold question of whether one wishes to continue to support an economy reliant on fossil fuel energy, and if so, if the risks implicit in the
transportation of oil and gas along the coast of BC can be managed. The ongoing lessons of the 1989 Exxon Valdes spill, where excessive contamination continues to impact economic and environmental recovery, all financial compensation has been exhausted and where the impacts can now no longer adequately monitored, answer the first part of the question. The recent (and customary) under-reporting of the magnitude of a spill from the pipeline, which highlights causes for a lack of public trust in proposed risk management plan,14 answers the second part.
The marginalization of dialogue in favour of authoritarian approaches, forecloses discussion of the risk management question, just as the now defunct, National Energy Board marginalized public climate change concerns. One of the reasons why ENGOs are assuming leadership where government and industry are failing is because increasingly governments at all levels are “losing their social license,” by foreclosing reasoned dialogue. To lose social license is to lose the argument. This is disturbingly frequent. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent move to re-draw the park boundaries of Tetrahedron Provincial Park.
In the wake of a decade of successive summer droughts and a major increase in population, the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD), has applied to have the large main lake, Chapman Lake, in Tetrahedron Provincial Park, removed from the park so that it can be pumped as a water supply for the regional district. Tetrahedron Provincial Park is a class A park, that is, a conservation area dedicated for preservation of natural areas. Following the Liberal government’s revised Parks Act ( Bill 4), which the former NDP opposition then vociferously opposed, the now new NDP government, with the support of Parks staff, is now moving to “redraw” this conservation area’s borders. The matter is strongly opposed by residents of the Sunshine coast, including the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association, and Friends of Tetrahedron Park, as well as Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the BC Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC. As noted by Barry Janyk, the executive director of BCFMC, and former mayor of Gibson’s BC:
“The SCRD has made an application to BC Parks to find the ways and means to accommodate their scheme. Under the Park Management Plan there is to be “comprehensive public consultation.” According to Jennie Aikman, BC Parks Regional Director, rather than hosting a facilitated community meeting (or meetings) this will consist of an informal “open house.” When asked why there would be no community meetings to discuss this critical issue, Ms. Aikman maintained that they can often turn into confrontational disputes. In any event, the process appears to be counter to some of the key principles of the province’s own guidelines around adjusting park boundaries.”15
While staff may be inconvenienced to find that people become “confrontational” about environmental issues that the public considers important, the practice of circumventing legal obligations and avoiding discussions entails that meaningful consultation is avoided in favour of an authoritarian approach, dismissive of the legal framework which exists to protect “the public interest.” Authoritarianism may expedite decision-making, however it does so without first presenting convincing arguments necessary for the legitimate exercise of power. The lack of the necessary connection between reason and power means that the public interest is increasingly represented almost exclusively by the ENGO’s.
This authoritarian approach, in which government decisions, effectively purporting to know what is best for a community, without first convincing the public, become divorced from the exercise of public will through public consultation, is regettably becoming a normal practice across BC, and it seems, Canada. A recent example in this writer’s own backyard further references and illustrates this point and the kinds of overarching authoritarianism that promotes environmental outrage in BC. The recent application for a license to bottle water from the Merville aquifer has mobilized both local government and The Farmer’s Institute.16 This agricultural area experiences water shortages every summer, causing a near-drying of local fish-bearing streams and rivers. Concerns for water availability and water usage run high. A family discovered that the local aquifer had a desireable mineral balance. They therefore applied for a small license to bottle and sell this water. Against the recommendations of local government staff, the Ministry of Lands and Forests staff not only authorized a license, but doubled the volume applied for, without any public consultation. Apart from the commercial problems associated with that license, once the operation becomes effective, the property can be sold and the initial pumping volume further increased. In other words, a family operation could be sold to a giant such as Nestle. This could conceivably severely impact the local aquifer’s future capacity. It is also felt that this could have a large impact on river recharge rates and the future of local farming
operations as climate change evolves.
There is a growing public recognition that our environmental resources are no longer infinite, which is reflected in the public support for and growth of ENGOs. Against this growing environmental awareness we elect governments who promise change, but who are unwilling to confront the unsustainability of the economy. This creates some interesting disconnects. Thus, to
its credit the current government is moving to write BC’s first Species at Risk Act.17 However, just as the act is being written, the government Centre for Data Conservation has just released a major overhaul of species status. The overhaul reduces 18 the number of “at risk” species and suggests that biodiversity may be in better shape in BC than elsewhere in the world. While this
appears to be good news reflecting the increased efforts of many biologists and naturalists, the timing of this release may appear to make the legislation less urgent and alleviate pressures on the government to prioritize biodiversity protection measures over economic development.
Government ambiguity in environmental protection received unwanted national attention this week with renewed old growth logging in the Nahmint Valley near Port Alberni, particularly with the falling of BC’s 5th widest Douglas fir. In spite of decades of advocacy to preserve the 1% of the origional old-growth Douglas fir forests that remain on Vancouver Island, which has
broad public support of pulp and paper workers unions, as well as Chambers of Commerce and the Union of BC Mayors, the NDP has broken its own electoral promises to put an end to oldgrowth logging. The Horgen government has sold timber licences to some of the most ecologically important remaining parcels and allowed renewed logging in environmentally
sensitive areas. Once again, ENGOs which have assumed the information and data collection, will be burdened with advocating for the public interest in the absence of government support of the public interest. As summarized by Ancient Forest Alliance executive director Ken Wu:
“So far, the new NDP government has, disappointingly, supported the destructive status quo of high-grade old-growth forest liquidation, raw log exports, mill closures, and unsustainable forestry in general. They need to break away from the old unsustainable mindset that has driven the increasing collapse of both ecosystems and rural communities in this province. When it comes to forestry, the NDP have not distinguished themselves from the BC Liberals in terms of any new laws or regulations…” 19
Such events indicate that there continues to be in BC a de-regulated approach to the environment, a general lack of stringent regulatory oversight and enforcement. It is the growing realization of the problem and the increasing willingness, or unavoidability, that we need to engage in a public discussion, which comes largely from the work of ENGOs, that gives some
hope. Of note on this matter is the public information that is coming from the work of the Agricultural Land Commission, in collaboration with ENGOs. Among the glaring revelations that are coming out of these discussions is the scandalous “black market” in “waste landfill material’ excavated by the construction industry and illegally dumped on prime agricultural land.
The construction and development boom in BC has created a lucrative “trash crop” which is expensive to dispose of legally, but which farmers and landowners can be paid to take in order to fill wetlands and cover organic soil. (The practice is more lucrative for farmers than harvesting crops.) The practice effectively sterilizes agricultural land by covering it with waste concrete, asphalt and clay, and is very difficult to remediate as it is effectively the creation of “contaminated land.” Given the relatively small area of agricultural land in BC, this is a major virtually unregulated problem, with huge environmental implications.20
Those implications were the object of my last report.21 As I pointed out then, farmland drainage in BC is virtually unregulated, and often violates basic Common Law principles. These “trash crops” are regularly used as an impervious fill for pervious surfaces and wetlands to “improve drainage,”and provide relief from surface saturation resulting from winter West Coast rains. The quality of this run-off is rarely – if ever- tested. Agricultural ditches are regularly connected, without explicit permits, to the Ministry of Transportation ditching system, which is itself directly connected to our fish-bearing rivers. Contaminants from “trash crop” dumps therefore flow into the Salish Sea as untreated waste waters. It should therefore came as no surprise to learn, less than a month after a cholera outbreak in Qualicum, that this month, in the midst of an
opiod crisis in Canada and the United States, mussels tested tested positive for opiods, less than 100kms away in Puget Sound.22
While the practices and intentions of the current coalition NDP/Green goverenment are undoubtedly an improvement over the many abuses of the previous administration, the environmental problems which British Columbians face remain those of administrations that are not adept at listening to the public’s interpretation of its interests. The problems that are emerging make the disconnection between the public and government administration and industry increasingly glaring. Within that environment ENGO’s increasingly play an important role assisting government to recall the public interest and restrain a growing authoritarianism.
2 Kendall R. Jones et al. “One third of the global protected land is under intense human pressure,” Science 360 (18 May 2018) 788-795.
3 Rafel Magris and Robert Pressey “Marine Protected Areas: Just for show?” Science 360 (18 May 2018) 723-724.
7 Flavio Alicina Bockmann et al. “Brazil’s government attacks biodiversity.” Science 360 (May 25 2018) 865.
8 Mona Nemer (2018). “Canada’s Call”. Science 25 MAY 2018 • VOL 360 ISSUE 6391 835
10 https://www.alpineclubofcanada.ca/web/ACCMember/Community/Publications/State_of_the_Mountains.aspx p.2
11 http://www.geosinstitute.org; https://www.hakai.org
13 State of the Mountains, p.8
19 http://www.ancientforestalliance.org/news-item.php?ID=1189; https://www.cloverdalereporter.com/news/loggers-fall-800-year-old-tree-on-vancouver-island/
21 Loys Maingon (2018) “Sudan in a Year of Canadian Cholera,” CSEB vol. 75 – 1- p.7-11.