Viewpoint: Environmental priorities laid out

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Does Salt Spring have a healthy environment today? What was the environment like in the past compared to now?  What do we want our natural environment to look like in the future?

The answers to these questions are complex and are similarly being debated in many countries around the globe. The Environment Working Group (EWG), formed in January 2018 under the Community Alliance, has been reviewing available information specific to Salt Spring.

If you lived on Salt Spring hundreds of years ago, you would have been surrounded by more species, each in greater numbers. We know this from traditional ecological knowledge, early European naturalists’ records from sailing voyages and archeological discoveries. The forest cover was greater, with more old growth stands and populations of large mammals. Freshwater quality and volume supported enormous salmon runs. The marine shorelines were ringed with massive kelp beds in which lived sea otters and — much longer ago — the Steller’s sea cow, a type of dugong.

Many plants and animals today are smaller than when the first Europeans arrived. Renowned fisheries expert Daniel Pauley assembled a history of photographs of smiling winners of fishing derbies when groupers in Florida were bigger than the fishermen in the 1950s, compared to today when the average catch is no more than a foot long. Each generation knows only the status quo of the present moment, and does not recognize long-term change, referred to as “shifting baselines syndrome.”                                                                                                     

We know on one hand that environmental degradation is occurring to our detriment; yet on the other hand we are slow to change our habits that are the root cause. When our collective and individual behaviour causes conditions around us to deteriorate, the stress we experience may either inspire change or entrench our denial. 

To understand the current state of the environment on Salt Spring Island, the EWG has gathered information from: Islands Trust (notably its excellent official community plan), past climate action reports (very thorough and in need of updating), the scientific literature and other community comparisons (Tofino, Nelson, New Zealand). Governance is complex at all levels, for example: federal (marine environment and harbours), provincial (freshwater, air quality, transport), CRD (infrastructure, potable water), Islands Trust (land use and planning) and First Nations (ownership and reconciliation). The volunteer and NPO efforts on Salt Spring are tremendous (Salt Spring Island Conservancy, Transition Salt Spring, Island Pathways, to name a few).

Today’s choices always affect tomorrow’s environment. In 50 years (2068), what will the environment of Salt Spring Island look like for today’s children? How many trees, salmon and orcas will there be? What arrangement of farms, protected areas, residential and industrial lands will they live with? How many people and cars?

Like the lobster placed in cold water but with the burner turned on, when will we feel the “heat?” Or will there be a slow amnesic slide from rural to suburban to urban — with three bridges, high-rises, a large portion of the island paved over — the Staten Island of the Salish Sea? Extracting resources from fertile land until a desert state is reached appears to be the ultimate end point of past civilizations.

Recognizing the complexity of the work ahead, the EWG has identified three areas where we can easily and immediately improve our relationship with the near environment: FireSmart property protection, water catchment and conservation and the reduction of single-use plastics. Stay tuned for future articles on these and other topics.

Environment Working Group members are John Borst, Chris Dixon, Susan Hannon, Pierre Mineau, Tom Mitchell, Anne Parkinson, Maggie Squires and Jean Wilkinson.

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