> By Peter Wood
Last July, the premier of B.C. directed the environment minister to “work with the Minister of Energy and Mines and the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations to provide options to cabinet on a wildlife access corridor in southeast B.C.” We were thrilled to see this in the minister's mandate letter, as this area is critical to wildlife movement in the Rockies and is facing numerous urgent threats from resource development.
Yet almost a year has passed with no action on this. In the meantime, the threats have escalated, mostly due to forestry and mining.
The rate at which private timberlands in this region are being logged has skyrocketed, currently estimated at 400,000 cubic metres a year. This is far above what is considered sustainable, and 10 times the rate of cut ever seen before on these lands.
Perhaps predictably, logged lands are being converted and sold off as recreational property instead of being maintained as a renewable resource capable of supporting local jobs. Many of the trees harvested from these private lands are being exported from the region as raw logs, delivering little in the way of employment at local mills and processing facilities.
On Crown land, numerous forestry operators are now pushing into some of the last remaining areas that have sellable timber, having exhausted areas easier to access. A quick look on Google Earth reveals an extensive patchwork of clearcuts with little left untouched, and a fragmented landscape. Local mills are beginning to feel the supply crunch.
Last month, the auditor general released a damning report on the state of mining compliance in the province, looking specifically at the Elk Valley in southeast B.C. as an example and concluding that a “lack of sufficient and effective regulatory oversight and action by MoE to address known environmental issues has allowed degradation of water quality”.
Five active mines on the Elk River have produced a massive legacy of waste rock that continues to leach contaminants into one of the best trout-fishing rivers in North America. The science is clear: the levels of pollution need to come down or we risk causing reproductive failure in fish downstream.
In 2013, a study assessing water quality in the Elk River found toxic levels of selenium downstream of the mines, posing a significant threat to fish populations in the entire watershed. In the three years since the release of that study, selenium levels have still not been brought down to levels that are safe for fish. Both science and common sense tell us that the Elk River simply cannot handle additional contamination. This has led to legitimate and serious concerns from our neighbours in the U.S., into which the Elk flows.
Yet despite the serious pollution problem in this watershed, the B.C. government continues to consider and even promote new mines in the region. Currently, three new mines proposed for the Elk Valley are moving through the environmental-assessment process, and four of the existing mines have expansion plans.
This onslaught of threats has placed an enormous burden on local citizens to respond: reviewing and commenting on management plans, attending public consultations, and monitoring impacts. It’s hard to keep up with the level of activity currently being witnessed in the Elk Valley. This is a direct result of the current land-use plan for the region, which gives no consideration to its world-class fish, wildlife, and recreation values.
In fact, it even explicitly prioritizes mining, oil-and-gas, and forestry development over every other value. There are next to no areas off-limits to development, or provisions for the protection of other values in this plan. A more balanced plan that protects wildlife values and still allows for responsible resource development could easily be developed and would be supported in this area.
Locally and internationally, it was hoped that the ministers' mandate to work on a wildlife-access corridor was going to be the first step toward a more balanced approach to development in the region.
A year later, we are no closer to striking the much-needed "right balance" between resource development and maintaining the health of these world-class ecosystems and the communities and wildlife they support.