For those who recall the scene when Neville Chamberlain stepped down on the tarmac of London’s Heston aerodrome on September 30, 1938, waving his piece of paper, the announcement by the British Columbia (BC) Government in Canada on October 16, 2007 must have seemed like déjà vu. On both occasions, an announcement promising “peace in our time” (for people or wildlife) was met with jubilant relief from people who wanted to believe that the insatiable appetite of a monster can be appeased with an hors d’oeuvre.
In 1938 the monster was Adolf Hitler and he was not to be believed or trusted. In 2007 the monster is economic growth, and its need for lebensraum will not stop at greenbelts, farmland, wetlands and nature reserves. It will devour what it needs to fuel its momentum and bend governments and laws to serve its ends. The strictest land use plans will fall before its armies. Even the home of “smart growth”, Portland, Oregon, stood helpless as growth forced population to spill over tight urban boundaries into adjacent farmland. British greenbelts are beginning to suffer the same fate. As planning consultant Eben Fodor was moved to comment, “smart growth is merely the planned, orderly destruction of our remaining environment”.
Economic growth is a function of population growth, driven in North America largely by immigration, coupled with obscenely excessive consumption - and it is crowding out wildlife habitat. The question is, can the dedication of conservation areas permanently shield wildlife and flora from developmental pressures? Experience suggests that it cannot. Canadian examples abound. Let me recite a few.
In Banff National Park, roads were expanded and tourist and campsite developments added; while in Lady-Evelyn Smoothwater Provincial Park, ATV trails were cut for motorised fishermen. In Lake Superior Park, natives built roads and bridges for resource extraction; while in Algonguin Provincial Park, to serve clear-cut logging, more kilometres of roads were built than exist in Greater Toronto.
In British Columbia, the 1.8 million acre Liard River Park was virtually erased in 1949, and in 1955; 1.1million acres were deleted from Tweedsmuir Park, both for hydroelectric flooding. In 1966, 2.3 million acres were shaved from Hamber Provincial Park.
And just two years and three months after the BC Sierra Club crowed about its “victory” of October 2007, when the BC government announced legislation to set aside more than 2.2 million hectares for the endangered mountain caribou, it was revealed that that same government had relaxed requirements for mining companies operating in caribou habitat. The new regulations, applicable to about 500,000 hectares of mineral claims, would allow the felling of caribou food-trees and the building of roads that posed an “acceptable” risk to caribou. My fears were vindicated. As I wrote just after the October announcement, “even with 2.2 million hectares set aside, they (the Sierra Club) would be advised to keep their powder dry”.
But false hope springs eternal. The Sierra Club reverted to its party mood when the provincial government relented and announced a ban on mining, oil and gas development in the “Flathead River Valley”. Now, flushed with pyrrhic victory, the Sierra Club coalition is calling for the area to be declared a “World Heritage” site. Do they expect UNESCO to send a military strike force to defend it from future incursions? Do they have any idea how quickly any legal arrangement that “protects” a sacred area can and will be cast aside in a heartbeat when our growth economy becomes desperate for its resources - the lifeblood of industrial civilisation?
According to analyst Chris Clugston, presently about 95 per cent of the material flow into the US economy consists of non-renewable natural resources (NNRs), and global supplies of 14 of 20 NNRs are projected to peak by 2050, using the most conservative and optimistic calculations. If the government of Queensland can permit bauxite mining in a park recently named after a national hero, Steve Irwin, imagine what will be politically possible when the going really gets rough.
As Clugston remarked, “We know that times are still relatively good when environmentalists are still able to save parks from mining and drilling.” But come the frenetic free-for-all to keep the industrial machine running, they will be brushed aside like so many flies hovering over a picnic salad.
Mark O’Connor warned that “These parks have supposedly been created in perpetuity; yet there is a risk that further shifts in ideology may leave a future government free to revoke national parks. It would by then be able to plead the housing and resource needs of a much expanded population.”
I would argue that this is no risk. Unless we radically change course, it is a certainty.
What Steve Hoecker said of America has universal application: “It does no good to preach that we should not destroy habitat or that we should reserve more open space. When push comes to shove, we are going to clear more land to build houses, plant more acres to crops, build roads to carry an increased traffic load, create more jobs as well as a host of other habitat-destroying activities in order to provide for an ever-increasing number of people. Each year we convert more wildlands and open space to human-dominated landscapes to provide for human needs. It can be no other way as long as our populations continue to grow. We continue to attack the symptoms, not the underlying cause.”