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Posted: January 2, 2021

Our sinking lifeboat

By Brian L. Horejsi

Op-Ed Commentary

There lurks a monster, largely out of sight, behind the COVID-19 news now distracting and preoccupying the media and we, the people. That monster is a “new” majority government settling comfortably, quietly, into the five-year long seat of unchallenged power over British Columbia affairs. Personally, I find that terrifying!

British Columbia has always run a “sink the ship” forest and land management and environmental protection system, a system now decades into paralysis. Like the Titanic, the environmental conservation ship has sunk, and successive governments, including the most recent ones, have slyly crammed the public trust – forests, land, water, wildlife –  or the fragments that remain – into a frail little life boat, and shoved off again, rowing frantically into the choppy waters of overconsumption and greed.

The same practices that characterized a long succession of politicians, and a historically complicit civil service, incrementally punched so many industrial-consumption holes in the “environmental” ship’s hull it sank in only 40 years. Now they claim the lifeboat, run by people and a system born of the same management mentality, is still – really – a flag ship. But widespread, highly visible evidence says the province’s public landscapes and ecosystem have been vandalized by a list of ministers and premiers whose leadership style was characterized by no vision, no guts and no backbone.

And it continues to allow private interests to punch holes in the environmental lifeboat. Take for example, Powder Renegade, an attempt to grab 88 sq km of public land adjacent to the Granby “Protected” area in southern B.C., place it in a private “tenure,” and make it a for-profit playground for snowmobilers in winter and off roaders and mountain bikers in summer. And right next door to it, Big White ski Resort, already the beneficiary of a huge public land grab, wants to add another 6,000 users, an 18-hole golf course and “control of user access” over another 4000 ha!

One ugly theme runs through this history of private interests exploiting public land for personal gain;  the conspicuous absence of an Environmental Impact Assessment process. This is not accidental; it is a deliberate omission that has undermined environmental protection in B.C. for half a century. How could that be, you might wonder?

Because a legislated EIA process demands written standards for land and wildlife protection, is based on use of the best available science evidence, guarantees pubic access to and involvement in the process, and has regulatory standards for civil service accountability. It draws lines in the sand beyond which government and industry cannot intrude without being exposed; and it protects the people and the public trust.

It’s easy to see why legislated environmental impact assessment petrifies ideological governments like the New Democrats, and the Liberals before them. It eliminates random choice and political expediency, like approving the Site C dam after promising not to do so. It allows someone like John Horgan to pick who wins, all while loading immense emotional pain and economic, environmental and social cost to the people. It allows people like Horgan, and former Premiers Clark and Campbell, to push ecological viability and integrity over the precipice, where caribou populations become extinct, wolverine are gone from huge parts of B.C., and old growth forests are trashed until only five per cent of historical area is left. It means extreme schemes to privatize pubic landscapes, like Powder Renegade Lodge and tenure and Big Whites proposed invasion of the home of endangered Granby grizzlies – where perhaps only 20 bears struggle to survive – are protected by privacy and secretly creep toward being almost done deals.

Given the abysmal state of regulatory enforcement of tenures and land use permits and licenses – clear government signals to the public that “we” dare not tarnish the holy grail – someone just “making a buck” – areas like the proposed Powder Renegade and expanded Big White will be essentially a free-for-all by private interests exploiting public lands.

We have the equivalent of a vaccine for this ongoing epidemic of environmental destruction; it is a vast body of knowledge clearly demonstrating our need to limit (and then reverse, even at this advanced stage) consumption and its growth  – the ultimate causes of environmental destruction.

But missing in action are political will and backbone. Partners in crime to political expediency, the civil service has deliberately chosen to stand on the sidelines, or worse, it has opted to aid and abet the widespread industrial degradation of landscape ecosystems by assiduously avoiding public accountability and ecological performance standards.

We all condemn Trump for failing to deploy known measures to slow (and then stop) COVID-19. Yet, advancing environmental catastrophe, exemplified by global climate disruption, is now so deeply enmeshed in our lives we have come to tolerate incompetence, ineptitude, and failure in governments feeble efforts to save the land and ecological processes upon which we all depend.

Today’s NDP government, a collection of people burdened by yesterday’s thinking, are not likely capable of dealing with today’s intense ecological, social and economic pressures, all of which demand revolutionary measures that must necessarily, upon being implemented,  cause great disruption (and pain) among traditional, entitled special corporate and business interests.

– Dr. Brian L. Horejsi is a wildlife ecologist based in Penticton.

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