Protecting our wilderness

April 7, 2000

Dear Friend:

This is an unusual appeal. I am writing to ask you to help environmental groups in your area rethink their approach to wilderness protection.

Here is the problem. In 1987, the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission) proposed that at least 12 percent of the earth’s land be set aside for wilderness protection. The idea took off, and environmentalists in every western country began working toward this goal. In Canada, the target gradually grew. Environmentalists now frequently advocate preserving between 15 and 20 percent, and sometimes even 30 percent, of our land.

Setting aside wilderness land to protect it against commercial development is essential in a society that cares about its heritage and its environment, and 12, 15, or 30 percent may be a sensible target in countries that are highly populated, where wilderness has all but disappeared, or where natural resources have real non-wilderness value.

But that formula is madness for Canada. Over three quarters of our population live and work in urban areas, and although most Canadians don’t realize it, our entire resource sector is extremely small. The mining and forestry industries – despite the immense harm they do to the environment – account for a minuscule percentage of the country’s GDP – less than one percent for mining and about half that for forestry. More important, as our foundation’s research has shown, most of Canada’s wilderness resource exploitation occurs at a loss: It has no economic justification whatsoever. Without the active encouragement of governments, who spur resource companies on through a host of grants and subsidy programs, we would not be recklessly tearing down our forests, destroying our waterways, and polluting our lands.

Governments often dispense these subsidies to forestry and mining companies, despite the ecological harm they do, to win votes in remote ridings and to repay contributors to their political coffers. Until recently, governments have been restrained by environmental organizations that have properly decried both the rape of the environment and the fact that it occurs at public expense. But many Canadian environmentalists are losing their power to protect wilderness by entering into pacts with the government in which the government agrees to set aside small amounts of land as protected areas.

These pacts are abominations. Without giveaways to the resource industries – which no government with integrity should make – we wouldn’t be protecting 15 or 20 percent of our land: We’d be protecting 80 or 90 percent. But the pacts are much worse than that as we can see from Ontario’s Lands for Life process, which may become a precedent for similar agreements being negotiated throughout Canada.

Under Lands for Life, the Harris government promised to “protect” 12 percent of a band of central and northern lands covering almost half the province. In exchange, it guaranteed the forestry industry existing levels of pulp and wood supply into the future, which will require opening up ever more sensitive northern lands to exploitation after the companies have finished ravaging more southern lands. The government also promised the forestry industry that its costs wouldn’t increase and held out the possibility of more intensive forestry. It further sweetened the deal with $21.5 million in subsidies.

The day the government announced its Lands for Life agreements, the mining minister assured claim holders and miners that it would be “business as usual” for activities already underway. He promised to allow mineral exploration in new parks and conservation reserves. If minerals were discovered, he continued, the industry could “borrow” the land for mining. He also announced $23 million in subsidies to the industry. As a final touch, he assured the industry that any future expansion of parks would require its agreement.

Across the country, resource industries publicly complain that environmentalists have pressured governments into setting aside lands they need to stay in business. Privately, they know they’ve hoodwinked the environmentalists. The industries get access to lands they don’t own, and the public-who own the lands-get nothing. Because environmental groups have signed onto the processes, they will be compromised in future – even silenced – should they complain about the outcomes. And the resource companies now have a claim to more subsidies, more resources.

Great damage has been done already, but it’s not too late to turn things around. We are working to counter the industries’ claims that they are entitled to destroy public lands – and that taxpayers should pay them to do so. Now, we must stop the negotiation of future resource pacts, which will only happen if the members of environmental organizations, and the public at large, wake up to the travesty that is under way.

Will you help, by asking environmental organizations that you have influence with to rethink their position? The linked articles (“Eco-extremists aren’t extremist enough” and “They get the gold, we get the shaft“) by my predecessor at Environment Probe, Lawrence Solomon, who now heads our foundation’s Urban Renaissance Institute division, provide more information to share with them. And of course, either Lawrence or I would be happy to discuss this issue with anyone you suggest. Your help is needed now more than ever.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Brubaker
Executive Director

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