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BC Politics

Why Christy Clark Shouldn't Talk to Kids about Trees

Urban premier doesn't know the wrong logging brings big costs to 'moms and dads.'

Vanessa Scott 26 Apr

Vanessa Scott is a writer with experience in research, communications, governance and environmental science, who divides her time between the Comox Valley and East Vancouver.

When I read Premier Christy Clark's simplistic -- OK, dumbfounding -- comments about how she talks to children about the forest industry, I was really offended.

Then it struck me that Clark was just another urban office-dweller with no real understanding of the industry, or forest communities.

And no understanding that our relationship with forests, and the rest of the world around us, is complex and multidimensional, not foolishly simplistic.

In case you missed it, here's Clark's grasp of forestry and environmental issues. In a speech to an industry conference, she said whenever she visited schools, no matter where she went, there was always one child who said, "We should stop cutting down trees."

"I'm glad they say it, because it's a chance for education," Clark said. "I get a chance to say to them, 'You know, if we don't cut down trees in British Columbia, we have to take more money from your mom and dad.'"

Clark should visit the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. She would learn that if you do cut down trees -- too many, in the wrong places -- then moms and dads and all taxpayers have to pay more to government.

Not for better schools, or health care. To make up for the damage done when people like the premier don't think seriously or rigorously about the full effects of cutting down trees -- or developing mines or pipelines.

For decades, Comox Lake provided clean drinking water for some 50,000 people in Courtenay and Comox.

Now we face regular boil water advisories because of turbidity in the lake. Water taxes are already set to increase more than nine per cent over the next three years.

And problems with declining water quality in Comox Lake have created the need for a treatment and filtration plant costing $50 to $75 million.

To cover the filtration plant's costs, the City of Courtenay will have to increase taxes and long-term debt. Or as, Christy Clark would say, "take money from moms and dads." 

Trees used to store and filter our water for "free." Until very recently, we were known for the quality of our drinking water from Comox Lake.

What went wrong? Our water crisis is part of a bigger picture. We're not the only Vancouver Island community with water trouble.

We're all learning the hard way that the natural infrastructure we destroy, like forests in our watershed, must be replaced by expensive infrastructure that brings permanent cost increases and higher local taxes.   

Like many municipal watersheds on Vancouver Island, the Comox Lake watershed is not publicly owned. The largest landowners are private timber companies, most prominently TimberWest.

Clean drinking water, or bigger profits for companies?

Some local politicians deny a connection between logging in the watershed and the sediment in the lake that has led to boil water advisories and the need for a treatment plant.

But in May 2015, Western Canada's Journal of Commerce looked at similar water problems in Port Alberni. "Unfortunately for Port Alberni's water system, the companies' lumbering activity reduces the watershed's ability to store water. And, the companies are responsible to its shareholders, not the residents of the city," the article reported.

Port Alberni's mayor -- like Comox Valley counterparts -- says he's in "discussion" to "develop a watershed management plan that will address "our need for high-quality water and their [companies'] desire to harvest timber in the watershed." 

Doesn't our "need" for clean water trump companies' desire for profits, especially when the costs to society are so high that they're not even fully publicly disclosed?

There is a relation between trees and taxes -- cut down too many trees, overstep best practices like stream buffers and the threshold of sustainable forestry, and citizens will pay dearly for the unintended consequences.

That's why it's shameful to see our 'stumps are better than trees' premier advocating even more ecological and fiscal indebtedness. Our proposed Comox Lake filtration plant's estimated cost of up to $75 million doesn't include staffing, electricity, maintenance, upgrades and decommissioning -- the total lifecycle cost and risks to taxpayers and future generations.

Our local water crisis is an outrage, and a warning. Climate change is bringing vanishing snowpacks and more weather extremes. The issues go beyond water quality, flash floods and summer shortages. Our land-use mistakes do serious damage to the physical fabric and fortunes of our communities.

The Comox Valley has experienced significant flood damage in recent years, with evacuations and serious damage to residential, commercial and municipal properties.

Our forests are powerhouses, storing carbon, filtering air, holding water to prevent those damaging floods. Other cities like Victoria and Vancouver have protected watersheds, which save millions of dollars by using forests, soils and trees to deliver clean drinking water.

But here in the Comox Valley, and in many other communities, we're destroying nature's "free" services and replacing them with costly engineered solutions.

I'd rather ensure trees and forests can do their natural water cycle work. I'd rather protect and restore our watersheds, since green infrastructure is forever, and investment in green assets yields many additional ongoing dividends to the public and local economy.

All our environmental woes begin to improve when we respect trees. So let's upgrade from business as usual so citizens don't have to shoulder never-ending costs while losing out on all the other benefits of trees, like vastly improved quality of life, measurable health and property benefits, cleaner air and more biodiversity, as well as inspiration, tourism, art, healing and a common cause.

It's simple. We need to save and grow forests. Protect our watershed and restore it, whatever it takes. And log in sustainable, carefully managed ways in appropriate areas.

But first we need a premier who can move beyond simplistic story lines and actually understand the real world complexities of forest communities.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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