"Preservation" spin – the year ahead in land use plans

Some recent news stories have provided a glimpse into the BC government’s strategy for the Land & Resource Management Plans (LRMPs) it is trying to complete before the election in May. It appears that the government will try to herald the conservation measures it puts in place into the appearance of a new, “preservationist” style of land management.

This spin isn’t merely the government taking more credit than it is due, though it is that. The spin appears to be part of an emerging strategy to undermine any future efforts to increase conservation and sustainable management on the coast and interior.

In a recent column Vaughn Palmer wrote about a new committee of Deputy Ministers that is supposed to push the LRMPs to completion. Palmer wrote, the “rumour mill suggests that, on [the central coast and the Lillooet LRMPs], the Liberals are moving away from their own development-minded supporters toward a more preservationist viewpoint.”

As we have written previously, the committee may exist, but it does not indicate a move toward a more preservationist attitude.

The rumour mill in this case is almost certainly the government’s own Public Affairs Bureau. The government seems to be setting up a strategy to spin itself as the benevolent protector of our province, instead of its current appearance as a lap dog of industry. This may be an important issue in some urban riding with swing voters in the next election.

If this is the government’s strategy, we can expect the to make a final proposal for the land-use planning map in time for the provincial election in May–which they will present as proof that they are really environmentalists. Increased protection in Lillooet and on the central and north coast may be the grain of sand the government’s public affairs politburo will try to transform into an environmental pearl. (For an update on the Lillooet LRMP, watch the Dogwood Bulletin next week.)

But most of the provincial Crown’s environmental agenda remains gritty sand, not pearls. The reality is that the government is doing everything possible to protect industrial interests in British Columbia. Due to markets campaigns and Aboriginal leverage, the government may have no choice in some areas but to protect more land, and to adopt stricter regulations for unprotected land, than it or industry would like. But for industry, this compromise is better than the alternative: no activity at all, thanks to boycotts and injunctions.

The risk for those working to protect parts of the coast and interior is to make sure they get enough protection this year. Because once the government commits itself to a land-use planning map in Lillooet and the coast, leverage related to the election may be gone. The government’s rumour-spreading is likely to bloom into a full-blown campaign to show they’ve done all it can to resolve the difficult tensions between economic development, Aboriginal Title and environmental protection.

And the government’s spin isn’t just a way to capture some of the “soft middle” of the electorate, who want to protect the environment but believe some that our existing industries are still the best bet for the province’s economic future. Perhaps more importantly, the spin is aimed at the international wood products marketplace, and at the courts.

If the marketplace believes the government has done its best to strike a fair balance, it is unlikely that attempts to launch a new markets campaign will repeat their past success. And in the courts, the government will respond to pressure from First Nations by saying that it has gone a great distance toward conservation and delegated authority, as an attempt to accommodate First Nations.

The dilemma is not, as some seem to believe, that the environmentalists and First Nations involved have been co-opted by government, and are giving the government an opportunity to cloak itself in green to take the pressure off. Even if environmental groups and First Nations reject the final maps, the government will still try to claim that it has done all that is reasonable.

The goal for NGOs and First Nations should be to build up enough leverage to give the government no choice but to accept substantial conservation and sustainable standards for land use. These land use plans are among the greatest opportunities we’ve had in BC to make major gains in sustainable land reform. It would be foolish to not seize the opportunity, just because the government is unlikely to agree to a sustainable ideal. Markets campaigns and demands for accommodation of Aboriginal rights will only last so long; if you don’t agree to negotiate, eventually, you’ll lose the leverage.

So it’s going to be an important, and delicate, year for sustainable land reform. The groups pushing for more sustainable land use and conservation will have to resist pressure to reduce their demands, and resist the temptation to put some of them off for a “round two” later on. The government is going to try to use the time pressure to maintain the industrial status quo, and then to hype the plans it approves as extremely “preservationist,” to ensure there is no round two.

The situation is not as bleak as this may sound. Despite the goverment’s inevitable attempts to spin these land-use plans, First Nations remain well positioned to use recent case law to challenge forest tenure and then to exploit the resulting liability in the financial markets.

Even if the government’s strategy is successful in the coming year, there may yet be further rounds, in years to come.

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