Wednesday, March 10, 2010

the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference, Part 2

photo from NY Times website

The plenary speakers at the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference earlier this month in Winnipeg did a fine job of setting the tone for the conference and helping us to think about the larger questions. David Young, in his talk, “Is Progress the Enemy of Conservation? John Deere and the Meadowlark” expanded on that particular question by looking at the sweep of our history on the Canadian Plains. “Farmers, “ he said, “are the first engines of progress.” The prosperity that we all enjoy today comes from farmers applying the latest machinery to allow them to grow food at lower per-unit costs. The benefits of relatively cheap food produced in this industrial way drive progress, by freeing the rest of us from the labour it takes to feed ourselves, but it comes at the expense of the ecosystems where that food is being grown. Young reminded us that the same prosperity that causes the environmental problems we are studying and discussing at the conference also paid for our educations, jobs, expense account, and travel to such an event. He, and other speakers kept posing the honest question that falls out of such a discussion: are we willing to give up some of our prosperity to save and restore endangered species and spaces? David ended his talk by reminding us of the Ojibway and First Nations worldview that considers other creatures as equals, describing mammals for instance as “the people who walk on four legs.” He implied that nothing less than a shift to this worldview of mutual respect for the others we share this land with is going to get us to a place where we can look at the prairie and see its ecological and spiritual value. Only then will we see that the land’s services are the real “essential services,” more important than highways, bridges, and other infrastructures, and equal in importance to health and education.

Alberta's Brad Stelfox, photo courtesy of Foremtech

On the second morning, Dr. Brad Stelfox gave a brilliant and clear-headed account of the tradeoffs and bargains we make in our prairie land-use decisions. Stelfox is the mastermind behind something he calls ALCES (A Landscape Cumulative Effects Simulator), which according to their website was “formed to facilitate an informed and balanced dialogue by stakeholders on both the merits and liabilities of landuse practices.” He said we suffer from “a silo understanding of land use,” with separate groups looking at separate effects and not the compounding effects or overall picture.

Like many other speakers throughout the conference workshops, Stelfox felt that scientists are doing a lousy job of communicating the story of what is happening to prairie ecosystems. The public doesn’t get it, in part, because scientists haven’t told the story well. He saved his harshest criticism, though, for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, calling it “a disgusting approach” to looking at how land should be used. I cheered inwardly when I heard him say that the problem with the EIA version of science is that the consultants hired to do the work are required merely to look “just over their shoulder” to yesterday to compare the effects of any development. This virtually guarantees that the data will show only a slight impact. Not afraid to call a spade a spade, Stelfox dismissed this approach as “bad science.” Biologists at the conference who have been pressed into participating in this kind of EIA work, for example to show the impact of energy facilities on grassland birds, told me they share these concerns about the process, but they do the work because if they don’t some other consultant may do an even shabbier job. It’s a Catch-22 where the only beneficiaries are industry and the owners of consulting firms that do this kind of EIA research.

Stelfox ended his powerful presentation by saying that he has looked at the long-term plans of every land use sector (energy industries, food industry, urban development, recreational land use, etc.) and, guess what? They all have big plans for growth. “Not everyone can do everything they want every time, but that is how we have been proceeding.” He challenged us to face the hard questions: how do we want to cut up the pie? What tradeoffs are acceptable? Are we willing to lose a few species to keep our way of life?

photo from NY Times

I will continue my reporting on the conference in the next post but here are some interesting news items from recent days that relate to grassland and grassland birds:

1. A New York Times piece on American efforts to keep Greater Sage Grouse off the endangered list.

2. A wonderful tribute to grass, published in the NY times.

3. An item on the CBC website about bison needing more land.

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