The leadership crisis is a time of vulnerability for B.C.’s political parties, but an opportunity for voters to hear the position statements of potential premiers. Who among the candidates will stand up for the environment? In this International Year of Biodiversity, the world is losing biological diversity more rapidly than ever before in human history. The impacts of climate change and energy shortages urgently need solutions. Habitat conservation, the health of coastal waters, air and water quality, species at risk protection, and the future of farmland are all key topics for political leadership and debate. We must demand the highest quality of care from our decision makers, and true environmental sustainability will rely on much more than buzzwords and false promises.
According to their website, the B.C. Liberals believe it is “the responsibility of government to operate sustainably, such that future generations will have similar economic, social and environmental opportunities”. Gordon Campbell’s government introduced the provincial carbon tax, a progressive environmental move, praised by the University of Ottawa think tank Sustainable Prosperity. The NDP’s “sustainability policy” states “we seek an environment that is second to none, where natural systems are not taxed beyond their ability to regenerate and repair themselves”. So far, so good. Natural systems include forests, grasslands, rivers, streams, oceans, estuaries, and the wildlife that depend on them. Environmental opportunities could include the ability to drink clean water; harvest wild trees, mushrooms, fish, or shellfish; grow produce; raise livestock; hunt for game; and gaze in awe at whales, eagles, or flocks of shorebirds.
Protecting these attributes is going to take real leadership, because society has opted to put money-making and economic power first. Despite the claims of sustainability and “green” policies, nature conservation is being ignored in the rush to exploitation of every hectare of the province. If it were otherwise, then we would have an environmental assessment office that sometimes said no to a project. What a change it would be to hear a resounding “no-go” instead of the usual fudging with mitigation, or paying off with inadequate compensation. The B.C. Liberals gave the green light to Taseko Mines, and it was left to Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative government to turn it down on ecological grounds. Unfortunately, they both seem to agree on the need for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which would slice through the heartland of the North. The generation of hydro power from rivers by independent power producers also features prominently on the B.C. Liberals’ agenda. Decisions on where to place such schemes “need to balance the interest of all British Columbians”, and “Communities are consulted as part of the Environmental Assessment process”, according to the B.C. Liberals. Whether you are reassured by this statement depends on your view of such assessments.
True environmental sustainability requires solid information. Relevant ministries should have research scientists working in the public interest, instead of relying on the self-serving reports of corporations and promoters. Ministries should be organized so that research, policy planning, operations, and enforcement can be managed effectively together, instead of causing confusion and conflict with multiple jurisdictions. Currently, the public has to negotiate between all the players, with no one taking responsibility for environmental mismanagement.
B.C. is the most biologically diverse province in Canada. It is the place to be for killer whales, grizzly bears, Pacific salmon, wintering owls and eagles, and giant coniferous trees. Over three-quarters of the country’s birds are found here, and over two-thirds of the freshwater fish. Despite the province’s many natural areas, ecosystems and species at risk number in the hundreds. One hundred and fifty-two species and subspecies are considered candidates for species at risk status, while only three (the Vancouver Island marmot, the burrowing owl, and the American white pelican) are actually legally designated as endangered. Many of the most threatened species are found in the South Okanagan, the lower Fraser Valley, and around the Salish Sea, locations that are all under heavy pressure from development. In May, the NDP environment critic attempted to introduce a provincial Species at Risk Protection Act. Where do proposed leaders stand on this issue?
The Agricultural Land Reserve in the Lower Mainland is threatened by constant attrition despite being some of the nation’s best farmland. Fields and wetlands in the Fraser River estuary are the most important wintering and migrating bird habitat in Canada. Estuary marshes and coastal streams are vital for the survival of salmon. These ecosystems are an essential part of our natural heritage, yet there seems to be no political vision for the area, other than as an industrial and transportation “gateway” to the province. A doormat could be a sadder analogy.
We have an unusual opportunity to let potential leaders of both parties hear our viewpoints. How governments set policies today is going to shape the face of our province for decades if not centuries to come. The natural environment must be part of that debate.
Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.