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Posted March 22, 2012

Harper changes the rules for the environment

Four years ago, sitting in the house he built with his own two hands way up the coast in Echo Bay, 73-year-old Billy Proctor listed the ways he could tell salmon stocks had collapsed

Times Colonist, March 15, 2012

Harper changes the rules for the environment
Photo by TJ Watt

Four years ago, sitting in the house he built with his own two hands way up the coast in Echo Bay, 73-year-old Billy Proctor listed the ways he could tell salmon stocks had collapsed.

Hungry eagles had taken to hunting seagulls, had even killed a couple of loons before his eyes. Bears had been reduced to clawing through creek beds for salmon eggs. Seals were chasing fish far up the streams.

Proctor even saw a humpback whale scare herring right onto the mudflats in front of his home on Gilford Island, which sits in the heart of the Broughton Archipelago, a float-plane ride east of Port McNeill.

Overfishing was partly to blame for the loss of salmon, Proctor said. So was predation by seals, sea lions and dolphins. But particularly galling was the free for-all in the forest industry: bridges and culverts disrupting streams, mudslides silting up the spawning gravel, the shock of blasting for road building killing roe.

When the shade-giving trees along the banks of a high altitude river were cleared, the rocks heated, the water temperature rose and the salmon eggs died. The rules go out the window when the logging is done away from prying eyes, Proctor said.

Me, I just sat and listened, having been advised that when Proctor opened his mouth, the smartest thing to do was keep yours shut. A commercial fisherman for 60 years, and a logger, too, his knowledge of the natural world is legendary on the coast.

The conversation came to mind Wednesday with two stories out of Ottawa.

The first one dealt with the leak of a proposal to weaken 36-year-old rules protecting fish habitat, the intent being to clear some of the barriers faced by projects such as the proposed Enbridge pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat.

The fisheries minister's office reacted to the leak with a statement saying "federal fisheries policies designed to protect fish are outdated and unfocused in terms of balancing environmental and economic realities."

The second story dealt with a government plan to "modernize" environmental assessment legislation for the same purpose. The Conservatives talk about being "efficient" and "effective," about needing to save industrial development from getting bogged down by time consuming environmental reviews. They paint a picture of economic opportunities being lost to the woolly headed, woolly hatted ecoshrubs who say "no" to every job-creation idea that involves shifting a rock or chopping down a tree.

Hold on, replies Green Party leader Elizabeth May. That's a nicely spun narrative, but not one rooted in fact.

In the entire history of the environmental review process, only three projects have been flat-out rejected, says the Saanich-Gulf Islands MP.

That includes the most commonly cited example, Ottawa's thumbs-down to a proposed mine near Williams Lake in 2010. The rest of the time, the review process is merely used to tweak proposals to mitigate their environmental damage, not stop them altogether.

"This isn't a system that's set up to operate with a red light and a green light," May said Wednesday from Ottawa.

She maintains there is really only one reason the Conservatives are intent on "gutting" the Fisheries and Canadian Environmental Assessment acts: "It's all about fast-tracking oilsands projects that link to supertankers."

The broader consequences will be disastrous and should alarm any Canadian, regardless of political persuasion, who cherishes the great outdoors, she says. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is intent on stripping Canada of environmental safeguards that have been around for generations.

We can assume the prime minister has a different take. And maybe he's right. It's a matter of perspective and priority.

But the thing is, the farther you get from Ottawa (or Victoria, for that matter), with the sound of ideological warfare fading with every step, it's hard to think of the Canadian wilderness as being over-regulated.

Mismanaged, perhaps, and more troubled than a Hollywood marriage - but even when rules exist, they're enforced so sporadically that sometimes they might as well not exist at all. No wonder David Suzuki is always scowling.

When the Conservatives talk of "balancing environmental and economic realities," it's easy to imagine a voice bouncing back from Echo Bay saying, "That would be a good idea."

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