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Dead whales, felled trees and cold campfires

By: | May 27, 2014

When it comes to our environment, government shows a pattern of disregard

Douglas Ballam
The Green Space examines issues affecting the natural world we live in, with an in-depth focus on Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Creative Commons Photo (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In recent weeks, much attention has been paid to two unfortunate incidents. In late April, several small communities on the west coast of the island were shocked when giant, dead whales washed ashore in their towns. Then, in the middle of May, many St. John’s residents were angered and saddened when venerable and stately trees in front of the Colonial Building were cut down. While seemingly unrelated, the provincial government’s response to these incidents illustrated their pattern of disregard for our environment. Their apparent distaste for anything nature-related culminates most egregiously in their hollow defence of the elimination of interpretation programs in our few remaining Provincial Parks.

Whales? What whales?

When the poor, ill-fated whales started showing up on the beaches of communities like Trout River and Cape St. George, I was amused by the reaction of the provincial and federal governments. At first, both reacted as if the issue were the proverbial “hot potato”. Responding as if the scalding spud just came out of the oven, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) quickly tossed the issue back to the town, despite the fact that whales are clearly within their jurisdiction under the Marine Mammals Regulations. Their excuse for washing their hands of the issue was that the whales were above the high water mark on the beach and, therefore, no longer in their jurisdictional waters, so to speak. While this is technically true, to me this callous behaviour exemplifies the worst of bureaucracy. Governments exist to provide services to their citizens that protect them; using a technicality to ignore the serious needs of these communities is simply wrong. It was only after the plight of these communities became a global internet phenomena that DFO acted. Peter Fenwick, Mayor of the Town of Cape St. George, grew so frustrated that he put their beached sperm whale on eBay for sale (which I thought was categorically brilliant). DFO quickly ordered the town to take the offer down – it is illegal to sell beached whales, apparently. They could officiously threaten the town with their legislative stick but put their hands behind their back when real assistance was needed.

Meanwhile, the provincial government, a silent member in this little game of toss, simply turned its back and let the hot potato fall to the ground. I could find no mention of the whales in Hansard, the official minutes of the House of Assembly, except as part of a petition to get cell phone service in Gros Morne National Park. There may have been discussions going on internally, but, to me, there was a distinct lack of leadership from our provincial politicians.  To suggest that these towns – small villages really – had the financial or technical wherewithal to deal with these whales was simply ludicrous. Thankfully, with the help of the Royal Ontario Museum and nature itself (one whale washed back out to sea) the issue seems to be dealt with.

Stupid trees are in the way

Douglas Ballam Wedding Day, 1994. Colonial Building, St. John's, NL. Photo courtesy Douglas Ballam.

Douglas Ballam Wedding Day, 1994. Colonial Building, St. John’s, NL. Photo courtesy Douglas Ballam.

A couple weeks later, in May, more frustration and anger was expressed by residents of St. John’s when they saw the stately trees cut down in front of the Colonial Building. They were cut down as part of the much-needed renovation of the historic building. The provincial government was surprised by the reaction and responded with two reasons. First, the goal of the renovation was to return the building and grounds to its original state. Second, construction requirements would have necessitated the removal anyway. I am not qualified to comment on the second reason but the first seems contrived. If the goal was really to return everything to its original state, then the building would have to have gas lighting.

The loss of these trees was personal. In July 1994, I had the astonishing fortune to marry my lovely wife. Like many others, we chose to have our wedding pictures taken in front of the colonial building, largely because of the beautiful trees. The provincial government’s casual and dismissive attitude just adds vinegar to the wound.

Minister suggests watching TV in parks is a good replacement for outdoor programs

While these issues dominated the headlines, a third, possibly more important issue escaped the notice of most people. Still reeling from the seemingly apocalyptic winter, many Newfoundlanders went to private or provincial parks to celebrate the May 24 weekend. And, for the second year in a row, no interpretation services were provided in our provincial parks. These services were cut in the 2013 budget and I’ve lamented their loss in this column already. Most people who have experienced the pleasure of attending a campfire sing-a-long, hike or an arts and craft session in one of our provincial parks probably thought that these activities were simply recreational. But, the fact of the matter is that these activities are tools and, while pleasurable, are not ends in themselves. Park interpreters use these activities to teach visitors about the natural world we live in. In an increasingly digital age, we are becoming more and more disconnected with the natural systems which keep us alive.

In 2005, Richard Louv, an American journalist, coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder. In short, he theorizes that children experience a host of problems because they are spending more time in front of screens of one type or another and less time outdoors. I believe him. While not a recognized medical disorder, any parent can see the effects too much time with technology has on their children.

That is to say, anyone except the Minister of Environment and Conservation. When questioned about the elimination of the park interpretation program, the Minister, Joan Shea, actually said that people can watch movies in their trailers instead:

Mr. Speaker, there are even people – I have been in campers where they have the best of technology, watching movies and TV, something that you would not – unless you go and see that these are big, expensive campers with that.  It is not just tenting any more.  
 
Mr. Speaker, whether you are in a tent, or whether you are in a modern camper and you bring your family there, they can have a very worthwhile experience.

This statement, from the Minister responsible for advocating for our parks programs, reveals a colossal ignorance. The current administration has a year or more left – I hope our parks system survives.

I believe I have been apolitical in this column. I give credit where I think it is due and question government actions, regardless of the color of the governing party. But in the case of this administration, the conservation of nature is treated like a sin. Horrified at the low polling numbers, the administration has worked hard at appearing to be more open and responsive. For me, it’s far too little and far too late. Premier designate Frank Coleman is, I believe, an honest and decent man. It remains to be seen if he has the leadership skills necessary to run a province, but it really doesn’t matter. You can have the best driver in the world, but if he’s forced to drive a jalopy that’s out of gas, he isn’t going anywhere. It’s time to clean house and give another group of people a shot – I don’t know if they’ll be better, but they cannot be worse.

So it should come as no surprise when the provincial government leaves communities on their own to deal with beached whales or that they blithely cut down beautiful and ancient trees. They are simply acting as their own nature dictates.

Author’s Note: On the day of publication (27 May), the Government of NL announced that the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council had new members and was reinstated. This is a positive step, but we have far to go. More in my next column, on June 10.


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