Plants and animals don’t vote.

In the 2013 provincial budget, the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) had the highest proportion of layoffs of any “core” department in government. According to Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy, the average percentage of people laid off per department was 5.4% (It’s actually 5.57%. “Ballam, don’t quibble about 0.13%” says you? Well, that 0.13% is equal to 63 people’s livelihoods. Tell them the distinction doesn’t matter).  The percentage of layoffs in DEC was 12.9%, more than twice the average.

But every department had to take their fair share, you say. The Department of Natural Resources, which houses the people advocating for mining in the province, was only cut 3%. This was Premier Dunderdale’s portfolio when she was a Minister. It is not wise to tinker with this industry. Have you ever noticed how many ex-Premiers end up on mining company boards (2 out of the last 3, by my count)?

Before I go any further, I have to address something that many of you are probably thinking – “compared to nurses; doctors; Health Care system; these fellows who count birds and trees and fauna gotta go”. Throughout my 20+ year career, I’ve heard this facile and asinine argument more times than I can count. The reduction in the DEC budget is equal to less than half of 1% of the current Department of Health budget (0.4%) – it’s like taking a half sucked candy from a child’s mouth to feed an army.

Wildlife Division took an especially hard hit. These people worked hard to protect our province – the natural capital we will one day bequeath to our children (although the way we’re going, they might not get much of an inheritance). These dedicated and committed individuals conducted research into wildlife populations (like moose and caribou), protected endangered plants and animals that are on the verge of extinction and managed hunting permits, among other things. A few individuals have decried these cuts, but not many. The sad thing is, Wildlife Division was just getting back on its feet after the devastating attacks made by the Liberals in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Some of you may remember Tobin’s and Tulk’s transparent attempt to get votes by relocating some government agencies from St. John’s to rural areas. I say transparent because every agency that was relocated went to a Cabinet Minister’s District. I believe that Wildlife and Parks were specifically targeted during that terrible time. Horse-do, you think? I have no concrete evidence, of course, but I do have a little story that illustrates my belief perfectly. Anyone remember the proposal to destroy Windmill Bight Provincial Park for a golf course? It was first submitted to government for review around 1999. Well, Parks staff, horrified at the idea and still reeling from the loss of 56 parks a few years before, successfully opposed the proposal. Solution? Cause unmitigated chaos by moving the whole Parks agency to Deer Lake. I’m sure the ramifications were completely understood by the politicians at the time. What does this move have to do with the golf course proposal? Shortly after the move, the proposal was resubmitted and the new Parks staff in Deer Lake, fearing for their jobs no doubt, approved it. Luckily, the idea was challenged by several environmental groups and government dropped the proposal again, this time for good. If you’re interested in protecting our environment, don’t aim for senior government positions – it’s a career killer in this Province.

Anyway, Wildlife Division was similarly devastated by this move. The people who did relocate worked extraordinarily hard to rebuild the agency and at great cost. Families were split up, marriages ended and people’s health suffered. Sometime around 2008, the Division was finally restored. Just in time for the Tories fiscal mismanagement to result in another assault. The provincial government is not the only one to let biologists go. These cuts come on the heels of similar cuts to biologists in Parks Canada last year (when I say “biologists”, I’m referring to a number of different job titles, like interpreter and ecologist).

These individuals, by and large, are not clock punchers. They are moved to study and work in the biological field usually because they have a deep concern about the world in which we live. I believe they hear the unspoken whispers of our ancient memory. Think for a minute – have you or your kids ever gone on a guided hike? Attended an evening natural history talk? Know someone who worked in ecotourism? Enjoyed a pristine area? These and other tangible benefits to our society are often the result of biologists working on their spare time. They reach out to the community happily – if it’s one thing biologists like to do, its share their knowledge. How many government workers do you know that do that?  Of course, the most important societal benefits provided by biologists are intangible – or at least invisible to most people’s eyes. Plants and animals don’t vote.

But I do.

If you’ve read my few previous columns, you’ll know that I like to provide concrete suggestions on how to address the issue I’m writing about. Not this time. I simply despair. As for those who were laid off in Parks and Wildlife, I feel for you – I’ve been in that situation. Further words of consolation fail me. So, I’ll reach out to someone who never failed – Stan Rogers.

And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
 / With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go

Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
 / And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

Rise again, rise again – though your heart it be broken
 / And life about to end / 
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend.

Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.