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Peace in our time, habitat forever?

By Tim Murray - posted Friday, 19 March 2010

For those who recall the scene when Neville Chamberlain stepped down on the tarmac of London’s Heston aerodrome on September 30, 1938, waving his piece of paper, the announcement by the British Columbia (BC) Government in Canada on October 16, 2007 must have seemed like déjà vu. On both occasions, an announcement promising “peace in our time” (for people or wildlife) was met with jubilant relief from people who wanted to believe that the insatiable appetite of a monster can be appeased with an hors d’oeuvre.

In 1938 the monster was Adolf Hitler and he was not to be believed or trusted. In 2007 the monster is economic growth, and its need for lebensraum will not stop at greenbelts, farmland, wetlands and nature reserves. It will devour what it needs to fuel its momentum and bend governments and laws to serve its ends. The strictest land use plans will fall before its armies. Even the home of “smart growth”, Portland, Oregon, stood helpless as growth forced population to spill over tight urban boundaries into adjacent farmland. British greenbelts are beginning to suffer the same fate. As planning consultant Eben Fodor was moved to comment, “smart growth is merely the planned, orderly destruction of our remaining environment”.

Economic growth is a function of population growth, driven in North America largely by immigration, coupled with obscenely excessive consumption - and it is crowding out wildlife habitat. The question is, can the dedication of conservation areas permanently shield wildlife and flora from developmental pressures? Experience suggests that it cannot. Canadian examples abound. Let me recite a few.


In Banff National Park, roads were expanded and tourist and campsite developments added; while in Lady-Evelyn Smoothwater Provincial Park, ATV trails were cut for motorised fishermen. In Lake Superior Park, natives built roads and bridges for resource extraction; while in Algonguin Provincial Park, to serve clear-cut logging, more kilometres of roads were built than exist in Greater Toronto.

In British Columbia, the 1.8 million acre Liard River Park was virtually erased in 1949, and in 1955; 1.1million acres were deleted from Tweedsmuir Park, both for hydroelectric flooding. In 1966, 2.3 million acres were shaved from Hamber Provincial Park.

And just two years and three months after the BC Sierra Club crowed about its “victory” of October 2007, when the BC government announced legislation to set aside more than 2.2 million hectares for the endangered mountain caribou, it was revealed that that same government had relaxed requirements for mining companies operating in caribou habitat. The new regulations, applicable to about 500,000 hectares of mineral claims, would allow the felling of caribou food-trees and the building of roads that posed an “acceptable” risk to caribou. My fears were vindicated. As I wrote just after the October announcement, “even with 2.2 million hectares set aside, they (the Sierra Club) would be advised to keep their powder dry”.

But false hope springs eternal. The Sierra Club reverted to its party mood when the provincial government relented and announced a ban on mining, oil and gas development in the “Flathead River Valley”. Now, flushed with pyrrhic victory, the Sierra Club coalition is calling for the area to be declared a “World Heritage” site. Do they expect UNESCO to send a military strike force to defend it from future incursions? Do they have any idea how quickly any legal arrangement that “protects” a sacred area can and will be cast aside in a heartbeat when our growth economy becomes desperate for its resources - the lifeblood of industrial civilisation?

According to analyst Chris Clugston, presently about 95 per cent of the material flow into the US economy consists of non-renewable natural resources (NNRs), and global supplies of 14 of 20 NNRs are projected to peak by 2050, using the most conservative and optimistic calculations. If the government of Queensland can permit bauxite mining in a park recently named after a national hero, Steve Irwin, imagine what will be politically possible when the going really gets rough.

As Clugston remarked, “We know that times are still relatively good when environmentalists are still able to save parks from mining and drilling.” But come the frenetic free-for-all to keep the industrial machine running, they will be brushed aside like so many flies hovering over a picnic salad.


Mark O’Connor warned that “These parks have supposedly been created in perpetuity; yet there is a risk that further shifts in ideology may leave a future government free to revoke national parks. It would by then be able to plead the housing and resource needs of a much expanded population.”

I would argue that this is no risk. Unless we radically change course, it is a certainty.

What Steve Hoecker said of America has universal application: “It does no good to preach that we should not destroy habitat or that we should reserve more open space. When push comes to shove, we are going to clear more land to build houses, plant more acres to crops, build roads to carry an increased traffic load, create more jobs as well as a host of other habitat-destroying activities in order to provide for an ever-increasing number of people. Each year we convert more wildlands and open space to human-dominated landscapes to provide for human needs. It can be no other way as long as our populations continue to grow. We continue to attack the symptoms, not the underlying cause.”

Yet the conservation movement persists in the strategy of designating land as “forever” protected in the face of runaway growth, creating an illusion of achievement proven false by historical trends. Nature Conservancy Canada boasts that it has saved two million acres but many times that has been developed more intensively outside park boundaries where a good number of endangered wildlife actually live, while Ducks Unlimited Canada boasts that it has conserved nearly one million acres of wetlands in Ontario though 60-90 per cent of wetlands in the more populated southern region of the province has been lost.

The longer these organisations have been in business, the greater the net loss in habitat. Imagine if the Coast Guard bragged about saving ten boaters this year but neglected to mention the 100 who had drowned.

In their 2005 Report, the National Refuge Association of the US revealed that “many endangered or threatened species are not even found on the refuges, including 40 per cent of all listed mammals, birds and reptiles, 75 per cent of listed fish and amphibians, and about 85 per cent of listed plants and invertebrates.” The area outside refuges will be more and more a killing zone. Much of the 40 per cent of all housing units that will exist in America in 2030 will be built on previously open lands, and “lands within five miles of fully 78 per cent of the western refuges have been mined, drilled, offered to or otherwise controlled by mining, oil and gas interests.”

And nearly 40 per cent of refuges have greater than 50 per cent human-impacted landscape within 5 to 40 miles. Particularly vulnerable are the 20 per cent of wildlife refuges smaller than 1,000 acres, or refuges fragmented into small parcels that can’t adequately defend the ranges of the species that need protection. Wildlife conservation behind paper fortresses is a pathetically deficient stratagem. The conservation movement needs to go on the offensive and attack the root cause of habitat loss.

Moreover, aside from their displacement behaviour, that is, their focus on saving habitat rather than fighting development, the business model of conservation organisations is flawed. To protect nature reserves, expensive on-going maintenance is needed. Ducks Unlimited Canada, for example, requires $3.5 billion to restore over 700,00 acres of wetland to sustain waterfowl populations, not including the many needs to replace water control structures, mend beaver fences and repair dykes, while Nature Conservancy requires park wardens, maintenance crew and legal funds to prosecute park violators.

All this assumes a “growing” economy to supply funding to fight the consequences of growth, funding that must come from government revenues and the portfolios of private donors. Ironically, this growth drives up the value of adjacent land making the protected land more attractive to developers and more costly to pay taxes for. Quite the bind.

The hard truth is, as long as economic growth runs loose like a mad dog, no land of any size is safe from predation. Growing populations and growing development envelop pristine sanctuaries, reach a tipping point, and then the resources that these sanctuaries are harbouring will be ravaged. Just as the BC government set aside this Mountain Cariboo habitat, the US Congress once established Yosemite National Park. When mining and logging interests came knocking at the door, with the stroke of a pen, Congress released 1,400 hectares of the precious park for their exploitation. Any wildlife sanctuary made by law can be unmade made by law. Overnight.

One day soon, in a country near you, when the price of oil is in triple digits and power down, there will be a desperate and ruthless scramble to use up resources wherever they can be found, even behind the sacrosanct walls of conservation lands. And government will pave the way.

First it was the tiny Sudetenland, then it was Poland and then it was the vast steppes of Russia. Feed a crocodile a morsel and he becomes stronger and bolder, coming back for more and more. The only safety for nature is to slay the beast, not to hide from it within the confines of a National Park. Economic growth must be stopped and a steady state economy instituted. Now.

Until then, remaining wilderness will soon be deemed a luxury.

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About the Author

Tim Murray blogs at (We) Can Do Better. He is Director of Immigration Watch Canada, and Vice President Biodiversity First Canada which he co-founded. Tim is a member of Sustainable Population Australia, the Population Institute of Canada and Optimum Population Trust UK. His personal blog is at

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