I remember a conversation that I had early in my UNBC career with a visiting forestry expert. I can’t remember his name or title but he was involved with a national forestry organization. It was probably 15 years ago. He was describing a revolution that he was witnessing in balancing economic, environmental, and social values related to the forest and how this was affecting forest practices, policy, employment, and forest products. His was a call to forestry programs to change what they were doing to reflect this new reality. I didn’t get it – I thought pursuing the balance between all of those things was already happening at UNBC. “Am I missing something?” I asked him. “No,” he acknowledged, and then he impressed upon me how fortunate we were at UNBC to have new programming and to be based in a region that understood and valued the forest.
I was remembering this during a workshop that was held at UNBC this weekend. The workshop was historic in that it brought together three UNBC research institutes – on community development, natural resources and the environment, and health – to host a single event for the first time. But it was the topic – the cumulative effects of multiple natural resource development projects around northern BC – that attracted more than 100 people from throughout the region. The event was financially supported by the BC Oil and Gas Commission.
“Cumulative effects” are generally understood to be the additive and often unpredictable outcomes of multiple development activities over a period of time and in a particular place. Of course, the topic is a big one in northern BC today as multiple projects, such as pipelines and mines, are discussed in places that may also already have active forestry, agriculture, and/or fishing and hunting activities. What might be the consequences of all of these activities? Jobs and economic growth represent part of the answer but attendees also sought to understand the environmental, social, cultural, and health effects.
For those curious about the future consequences of an expanded oil and gas sector in northern BC, for example, the presentations from the Northeast proved to be eye-opening. Fort St John mayor Lori Ackerman was quick to remind the crowd that the “NG” in “LNG” comes from the northeast corner of the province and that for every dollar invested on the North Coast in the form of LNG terminals, six dollars would be invested in her area in extracting, processing, and sending natural gas. She spoke about the deliberate transformation the community has made from being “destitute” in the 1980s and ’90s to the bustling city of 21,000 that it is today, en route to projections of having 40,000 inhabitants before leveling off. Not so fast, suggested Lana Lowe of the Fort Nelson First Nations. She spoke emotionally about elders feeling unwelcome on their own lands, heavy water use for fracking, and ecological disruption for roads to service new well-sites. As noted in my first blog post, the Fort Nelson area is at the frontier of natural gas development in BC and if LNG goes ahead, Lana predicted that there would be a 600% increase in drilling activity over the next 20 years, representing 3,000 new wells and 4,500 km of new roads. The comment was reminiscent of a remark made during a presentation earlier in the day by Chris Johnson, UNBC’s first PhD graduate, who described the general public’s understanding of cumulative effects as “Death by a thousand cuts: a thousand clear-cuts, a thousand roads, a thousand wells.”
So what to do? Just say no? Just say yes?
After numerous passionate presentations from university and community people alike, UNBC professor Mike Gillingham noted that “People feel this; it’s more than just a research area for us.” Indeed, it’s about the future of the region. And it’s about values and priorities.
It’s also about being educated, and not just in ecological processes. UNBC professor Kathy Lewis gave a fascinating presentation about how economics and politics have become primary forces on the land and how “good things” like local economic development can often bring unintended consequences that greatly reduce the resilience of the forest. One of her examples was the recent outbreak of the mountain pine beetle. The beetle’s population explosion has been blamed on climate change; that winters aren’t as cold as they used to be. But lack of species diversity in the forest has also been a major factor. Simply put, on the eve of the beetle infestation, our forests were full of mature pine trees. And mature spruce and Douglas-fir. The forest industry’s preference for those species had the effect, Dr. Lewis says, of gradually reducing the biodiversity of the forest, thereby making it more susceptible to insect outbreaks. A solution would appear to be planting more different kinds of trees, thereby increasing the diversity and resilience of the forest. But doing so would exacerbate a looming post-beetle timber supply shortfall and put local sawmill operations at even greater risk. Many communities that rely on the jobs in the existing forest industry model wouldn’t be able to accept this scenario and so the current cycle continues.
But maybe there’s another way. Maybe, just like that conversation I had 15 years ago, UNBC can take advantage of its youth and location to foster a new, modern discussion that truly involves people, brings industry and governments together, and fosters educational experiences for all students within the diverse communities and environments of the region. The results would be enhanced access to information and an army of alumni possessing unique skills and attitudes oriented to addressing the complex social, environmental, health, economic, and cultural issues of the region with respect to resource developments. In this regard, gaining an understanding of cumulative effects and impacts is more than a topic for a weekend workshop; it’s an approach to delivering on the mission of the University.
After all, as UNBC Canada Research Chair Margot Parkes identified, words that begin with “eco” have their origins in the Greek word for “house” and the Latin word for “household.” That is, ecosystems and economies aren’t distant; they’re where we live.
And for Lana Lowe, living with the multiple consequences of energy development, “It lifts me up just knowing that there are people like you talking about these things.”