No More Hunter-Gatherer Ecotopias

SALT SPRING ISLAND - All politics is local, eh? A 60ish woman from one of the founding farming families in the Gulf Islands called me recently. "None of us can afford to retire," she complained. "We're not allowed to do anything with any of our hundreds of acres."

Except pay property taxes. Last year I was sitting, somewhat amazed, in a public meeting listening to the 200 or so people, who hold back progress on this island, discuss how to get rid of some iniquitous developers. The problem seemed unsolvable, when a lithe red-haired chap with a Prince Valiant hairstyle -- hard to see how he maintained that in his off-the-grid yurt -- stood up and said, "Why don't we go and see the chief of the Cowichan Band? Maybe we can get them to claim the island as their traditional territory. That'll throw a wrench in the works."

A whole five per cent of the land in British Columbia is private property, so everyone in the room who owned a tiny slice, immediately had that familiar, dreadful shrinking feeling. The feeding of the environmental left on natives is the most recent and most wicked of the many chapters of do-gooder whites, bent on some socialist ecotopia, playing hunter-gatherer dress-up dolls with native people.

The worst part is that it could be so very good for everybody. B.C. is so very rich and so underdeveloped. There probably is tons of oil and gas under the sea, under Haida Gwaii, for instance, or whatever they're trying to call the Queen Charlotte's now, which instead is slated for a future park in this province which is already, as far as I can figure it, all park. Embargoed. No drilling. The local community is either moderately against it or completely against it. Never mind the considerable debt, never mind the broken health care system or natives living in extreme poverty, in catastrophic isolation, without any hope of a future.

So it was that last week, watching CNBC, I saw a two-person panel discussing the future drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the current drilling in Prudhoe Bay. A rather gorgeous young woman, clearly intelligent, educated in her subject and very calm, was listing the benefits drilling on the North Shore of Alaska had brought to her tribe. On the other side of the screen a weedy young lobbyist from the Environmental Defense Fund or League -- or whatever the hell -- was facing his worst nightmare: an educated native who didn't oppose development and didn't need his weedy little butt feeding off her trouble.

Hunter-gatherer socialist ecotopias be damned, she was saying: We have indoor plumbing, thank you very much, we have a high school, we have roads and jobs and money, we're independent and ... we like it. Plus, guess what, we police the environment, we watch over it, we are its first and best custodians and it's green as could be, as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be, as any drilling operation could be. Get out of the Third World, get out of the Middle East, it's not environmentally (or politically) sound, drill here. Now. We know how to make it right ... and so on.

Warm eddies of pleasure lapped out from my shriveled little heart. Prudhoe Bay, as you know, is the largest drilling installation in North America. Between 1981 and 1995, it contributed $50-billion to the U.S. economy, and provides between 20% to 25% of domestic oil production in the United States. The Porcupine caribou's numbers, the species most at risk, have risen from 3,000 to 23,400 in the past 20 years. If it were built today, given technological advances, its footprint would be reduced as much as 90%.

In the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Inupiat received a stake in the oil pulled from the ground, a stake that has since provided billions of dollars to the Inupiat people. Without this oil, says the tribe, they would be perennially stuck in a Third World economy.

This was just too exciting. Where the heck was Kactovik? I started dialing. The Mayor wasn't at the town hall; turned out, he was at the fire hall. "What benefits, Mr. Tagarook," I demanded, "has North Shore drilling brought to your people?"

Fifteen minutes later he was still talking. "The benefits go on and on: roads, schools, college tuition, two of my sons are in the armed forces", he said, with audible pride, "one is in San Diego working on turbines, the other is in Germany. We are part of the discussion, we are integrated into the planning process. Everything must come in front of our planning and zoning industry. A copy of the plan is filed and permission is solicited. All the communities impacted must comment."

"What about undersea drilling?" I asked. Oil and gas exploration off B.C. will be underwater.

"We have been adamantly opposed to offshore drilling because of our traditional relationship to the whales and the fish and underwater life. But the technology is catching up. We have allowed lease sales in the Beaufort Sea, one offshore production line, one structurally sound drill pad is now operating safely."

Monday is Earth Day, and if your kids are anything like those I know, they'll come home from school looking all mulish and pissed off about what "big corporations" (read the devil), are doing to Mother Earth. Have them call Mayor George Tagarook at the fire hall in Kactovik. Tell them that the iniquitous spell cast by environmental activists is dissolving, tell them to check the facts, because as Tom Knudson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Sacramento Bee, noted in a recent examination of Green tactics, "Those who know the environment best -- the scientists who devote their careers to it -- say environmental groups often twist fact into fantasy to serve their agendas."

This must end. No more dreams of socialist hunter-gather ecotopias preventing real people, the ones who fix the roads, serve in the shops and fight our battles, from retiring.