Anne Murray: Gagging environmentalists is poor policy

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      Recently, the Stephen Harper government managed to slip in another stab at environmentalists in what was otherwise a fairly mundane budget. Among the usual assurances of strong economic growth and environmental protection, the federal budget earmarked $8 million for checking whether the charitable status of organizations has been compromised by such radical political activities as letter-writing. Think what $8 million could have accomplished for the thousands of nature-focused organizations that struggle to find money for local stewardship projects. What could it have accomplished for environmental science and biology students working to discover more about the world around us? How much could have been done for scientific monitoring of wild animals and birds, as they struggle to adapt to changing habitats and climate?

      The attack on environmentalists is ill-considered and serves the government poorly. Millions of people in Canada profess concern for the environment. They may not label themselves as “environmentalists”, yet if their local woodland, pond, or park is threatened, they are quick to protest. If industry pumps toxins into the air or water and children get sick, the public immediately finds their voice. There are tens of thousands of conservationists, naturalists, bird watchers, gardeners, ecologists, environmental scientists, fishermen, hikers, hunters, wilderness lovers, cyclists, horse riders, photographers, and other folk who have an interest in the environment, yet may not label themselves as an “environmentalist”. Many of these people sign online petitions, donate to environmental charities, and remember those charities in their wills. Where will the line be drawn? Is the Nature Conservancy of Canada an “environmental” organization? What about B.C. Nature, the B.C. Wildlife Federation, or the Canadian Cancer Society? The government needs to realize that in attacking “environmentalists” they risk alienating a wide swath of the general public.

      Conservative policy advocates less government and more private or corporate control as the source of economic growth. Yet, increasingly in today’s world, the driver in job creation is innovation, whether in the private, public, or academic domain. Innovation comes from having an intractable problem to solve, often something that has to be mulled and chewed over and diverse opinions consulted. Many of today’s problems are rooted in environmental and health issues, including the big conundrums like finding ecologically-sustainable energy and food sources, protecting biodiversity in the face of growing human populations, and adapting to the effects of climate change. With a strong civil society, governments are able to legally set and enforce protective standards, a critical factor in such fields as food quality, air emissions, watershed protection, and disease control, to name only a handful. Besides creating jobs in the regulatory, engineering, and environmental science fields, such legal standards fuel creativity, as new ways to tackle old problems come to the fore. Pressure from interest groups is critical in identifying areas of public concern. Ironically, cutting red-tape and gagging environmentalists is more likely to dull innovation and diminish job prospects than improve them. In a laissez-faire society, innovation has no need to arise, because the richest or greediest will just take what they want from the commons.

      In British Columbia, there are numerous examples of cooperative, innovative approaches to problem solving that have had good environmental, social, and financial outcomes. Pulp and paper mills responded promptly to pollution regulations, cleaning up their effluents to prevent dioxins and furans from entering coastal waters. The presence of whales and dolphins in Howe Sound in recent years is a testament to their efforts. Similarly, potato farmers stopped using a pesticide linked with bald eagle deaths from bio-accumulation (the eagles ate ducks that were feeding on left over spuds in winter fields) and eagle numbers in the Fraser delta rebounded to historic levels. The presence of whales, dolphins, and eagles in our communities has the additional benefit of helping local tourism. Similarly, after local governments set new waste disposal standards, households began efficiently sorting their garbage into recyclables, which are collected curbside or returned for refunds. Recycled goods are used to make a whole range of new products instead of cluttering up the landscape, providing jobs and tax dollars in return.

      Cooperation is key to success. The Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust started with two groups that seemed to come from totally contrasting viewpoints: the Delta Farmers Institute, a long-established land-owner group, and the Boundary Bay Conservation Committee, which had taken the local municipality to court over a controversial land use proposal. Brought together over a common interest in the continuation of farming in the Fraser delta, the resulting formation of the trust has led to over 15 successful years of innovative farm management. Farmers plant crops that are beneficial to wintering and migrating wildlife and receive financial support from the community in return. Government agencies, academic institutions, private companies, and individuals are all able to contribute to such programs, which help both agriculture and wildlife prosper in a beleaguered near-urban landscape.

      The federal government needs to tone down the rhetoric and take a much more nuanced approach to environmental activism. Those who care for the environment are not radicals and we are not out to bring down a country that we love. We just want to conserve healthy and bountiful natural landscapes for future generations to enjoy, just as we do ourselves.

      Anne Murray is an independent writer and naturalist and the author of two books on the natural history of Boundary Bay—A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores or online from



      Valerie Fuller

      Apr 3, 2012 at 6:01pm

      Well said, Anne. I had no idea that "we" environmentalists were so scary! What next? Wire-tapping?


      Apr 3, 2012 at 9:42pm

      Where will the line between political lobbying and a public media release be drawn?

      Most of the time, these 'charitable' groups do research and policy analysis, write a report, and then release it to appropriate media outlets. Will that be called lobbying now?

      Susan Hodges

      Apr 3, 2012 at 10:13pm

      Yes I totally agree. The narrow minded focus of big government on their big industry projects leaves gaping holes in their foundation. From these holes support drains quickly away in the form of the average person having their perhaps unrecognized values and respect to nature so trampled on they suddenly realize this is not a government that shows any respect to the values that most of us Canadians have grown up. People then realize they do value nature, the work of environmentalists, biologists to preserve our lands while we toil away in other careers. At some point there is a tipping point and the public will turn away from the rhetoric and anti-nature stance of government.

      paul ravenshead

      Apr 4, 2012 at 6:46am

      Large organizations such as Sierra Club, Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Greenpeace, and the Organization for Change Alliance have brought the scrutiny on themselves. All charitable organizations should be held accountable not just environmentalists. If Suzuki and Bennett don't like it they can give up their charitable status and pay taxes like the rest of us do. Somehow I doubt they will as they would cease to exist.

      Ron S.

      Apr 4, 2012 at 7:23am

      The fact is if you disagree with what the CONServatives and their corporate friends want, you will be branded a "terriorist" and investigated or have your funding revoked. They aren't a government anymore, they are facists!


      Apr 4, 2012 at 10:30am

      Canadian money is one thing, but when hundreds of millions come in from the States to target specific Canadian initiatives there has to be some oversight.
      Do you think the US is blindly allowing these foundations to siphon off huge amounts of interest profit into Canadian "Charitable" organizations?
      I wonder why they wouldn't seem to care that they are losing out on massive amounts of Federal taxes through these maneuvers?
      Maybe it's because they are working in the interest of US policy?
      Get out yer Tinfoil Hats folks!
      This is a goodie!


      Apr 4, 2012 at 12:54pm

      What is the difference between lobbying, advocacy, and a media campaign?

      They all are intended to influence opinion and choice. If you influence the public you affect politics. If you influence politics you affect the public. There is little distinction between the three. If we are not careful, even articles like this may be considered lobbying.

      But, it sure is an effective way to muzzle non-profit critics, just claim they are spending too much money on political lobbying. Easy to do if somebody actually decides a particular group's advertising or advocacy is too political for their liking.

      Vivian Birch-Jones

      Apr 4, 2012 at 6:25pm

      Well written-thank you for speaking up Anne. More of us need to !

      Ron S.

      Apr 4, 2012 at 9:10pm

      Hey Rational, what about all the foreign corporate money thats used to "help" us make the right decision? Is that alright? I guess in your world Corporation money is better than environmental money, right, RIGHT?