The Manitoba government has announced plans to create a new provincial park to extend protection to the entire area of the Hudson Bay Lowlands from Churchill to the Ontario border.
This has generated positive reviews from wildlife and protected areas enthusiasts, but what about everyone else and the impacts of Manitoba's economic future?
Just because most Manitobans have never been there doesn't mean they don't have an interest. Manitoba's future economic prospects could be significantly altered if development there is foregone. Even the current government admits Manitoba needs economic development.
A huge new park is a step backward, and ignores the option of a sustainable-development approach that balances and integrates resource protection and development.
Polar bear denning areas are the rationale for the park, even though a nearby National Park Reserve serves that purpose for many of the dens. The ones now getting attention are not new. Some of us knew of them over 40 years ago: did the files and photos get lost? Other wildlife include two caribou herds, with occasional visits from another. The estuaries of the Churchill, Nelson and Hayes Rivers are great venues to see beluga whales. Huge numbers of birds migrate through the area twice a year. The historic sites of Fort Prince of Wales and York Factory sit as reminders of the days when the fur trade was western Canada's main industry.
The greatest threat to polar bears is climate change, not the possibility of unregulated development. Reduction in the length of ice cover over the Bay will shorten the time the bears have to be on the ice to hunt seals, which are their primary food. With fewer ice cover days, the bears will need to adapt or their numbers will decline. Their population today, however, is notably larger than in the late 1960s. Increased sea levels could encroach on some of the lower lying beach ridges.
Wildlife-management areas in concert with other existing designations are adequate for necessary protection, and can accommodate development by careful regulation.
If a large park is designated, the cost to Manitobans is the lost benefits of development.
To begin with, Churchill's future will look bleak. It's difficult to understand why the Manitoba government dismisses out-of-hand transporting oil or its refined products by rail (or pipeline) to Churchill, perhaps from southwest Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan. No interest is shown in investigating the matter.
Hudson Bay and the Hudson Strait will have extended periods of open water, so improved shipping access to Europe would facilitate more goods than just oil and related products being exported, as would moving fuel and goods to other isolated communities around the Bay.
Greater economic activity, including mining, would add to infrastructure and improved facilities for tourists, who even now have about five months to participate in a wide variety of activities. Where else could one see beluga whales, polar bears, caribou, an historic fort and catch some grayling from one home base? The Churchill tourist season is at least as long as it is at Banff minus the skiing.
The notion of a park also raises other difficulties. First, Manitoba Hydro, decades ago, placed reserves on large numbers of sand and gravel deposits near the Nelson River. These were to provide construction materials for future dams. Although there's little need for new dams at present, that could change if the government looked into markets for hydrogen. A new dam on the Nelson combined with an electrolysis plant could produce hydrogen from water for western Canada as well as the European Union. Germany is already adding hydrogen fuelling stations.
There are likely diamond deposits in the area, and such developments, appropriately regulated, would benefit all of Manitoba by increasing the provincial revenue base. They would be site specific and designed to minimize polar bear impacts.
Some nature and wildlife organizations might disagree with this, but could be very helpful in designing regulations and procedures to mitigate adverse impacts. In terms of broader priorities, they could be extremely helpful in the re-establishment of some riparian type vegetation in southern areas of the province where rapid runoff is adding to flood risks, and to Lake Winnipeg pollution from phosphorus that could be absorbed by marshes upstream.
Manitoba desperately needs economic development, coupled with a long-term vision and development plan for the lowlands area, including Churchill. Potential new markets are opening up in a world that will soon be notably different than today. Given a longer shipping season to European markets, the Port of Churchill offers exciting new potential for exporting many products from western Canada more competitively.
It's time to consider how to balance all options to achieve many objectives without negatively affecting the bears. Regulations under a wildlife management area would be sufficient to achieve the needed protection. A provincial park designation implies a degree of rigidity that will result in Churchill's demise: tourism alone cannot support community viability.
Developing a long-term vision from broad research combined with open public input and discussion could seek this needed balance. A research facility at Churchill would be a decided asset in learning how to address ecological protection and pollution concerns for many parts of Canada's arctic.
Protecting polar bears and their denning areas is important. This does not mean, however, that a "development moratorium" is justifiable on a huge area of the province. Manitoba needs to protect its valued resources, but can't afford to prevent anything else from happening. With a bit of thought, both protection and economic objectives are achievable.
On arriving at Churchill, the first words Samuel Hearne wrote in his diary were "ye God's, the flies." Manitoba's plan for a major park in the area, beyond those already there, could return Churchill to the flies.
Jim Collinson is a management consultant specializing in the complexities surrounding energy, economic and environmental issues.