The pragmatic environmentalist

What's this? A friend of the Earth with dirt on his hands?

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GOODLANDS -- Duncan Stewart always found himself in the minority as president of the Sierra Club of Western Canada, and later as the only Canadian among 15 Sierra directors who met regularly in San Francisco.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/07/2010 (4577 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

GOODLANDS — Duncan Stewart always found himself in the minority as president of the Sierra Club of Western Canada, and later as the only Canadian among 15 Sierra directors who met regularly in San Francisco.

"I’m just an ordinary farmer," explained Stewart.

Not an organic farmer. Not a farmer who shuns farm chemicals or other modern farm practises.

What’s this? A friend of the Earth with dirt on his hands?

And that just blew the minds of many directors in the famous conservation group.

 

"One problem in the American Sierra Club was they were always criticizing ranchers and farmers," said Stewart. "And I would tell them the ranchers and farmers are your greatest allies. They’re the ones looking after the land. You can’t do it from the city."

Stewart is used to being in the minority. He’s a long-time political environmentalist in one of the most conservative regions of the province. "They think I’m nuts," he says of some farming colleagues in southwestern Manitoba.

So what is a political environmentalist doing living down a dusty gravel road in southwestern Manitoba’s oil patch?

Well, besides still running his grain and cattle farm, he’s also the reeve of the RM of Brenda. "You’re not the only one surprised at that. I’m kind of surprised myself. It’s impossible for anyone other than a Conservative to get elected out here," he said.

Which isn’t to say he’s gone soft on environmental issues. Having walked through a clear-cut forest in British Columbia, he says, "It just makes you want to cry." Of the Turtle Mountains next door to where he lives, he says: "If they were fit to be ploughed, they would have been gone a long time ago."

And, he opposes giant dams on Canada’s rivers, a position you don’t hear often in Manitoba where people enjoy cheap electricity thanks to giant hydroelectric dams. "There are hardly any rivers left in Canada that work the way they’re supposed to," he says.

His interest in conservation started as a kid while roaming the Turtle Mountains just east of his farm along the Canada-U.S. border. But it wasn’t until he was in his 40s and his own kids had grown up that he became politically active. He got started by writing a letter to the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can’t even remember what it was about except it was about something he’d read.

Which is another thing about Stewart. He’s very well-read. He has two rooms, dedicated libraries with shelves of books stacked to the ceiling. There are all kinds: from nature and environmental books, like those by Eward Abbey, Stewart’s hero, to the works of Plato, to Ian Frazier’s seminal non-fiction work, Great Plains, to American classic novel, Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron. Stewart has only a high school education.

"Duncan Stewart is one of the finest human beings I have met," said Joe Dolecki, University of Brandon economics professor, who has fought on the same side as Stewart on some conservation issues. "His commitment to nature and the environment is as deep and unshakable as his love of both."

Stewart is someone "whose words and deeds have always commanded respect," said Dolecki.

Stewart expressed those views inside and outside the Sierra Club. One dispute some American Sierra members had with Stewart back in the 1980s and 1990s — his Western Canada executive director at the time was current Green party Leader, Elizabeth May — was Stewart’s large family.

"I had seven kids, which didn’t go over well. They weren’t in favour of large families. Overpopulation, you know. I’d say, ‘I’m raising seven Sierras,’ and I pretty well have." A lack of rural members with more pragmatic views of the landscape continues to be a weak spot among environmental groups, he says.

The Sierra Club remains a force in the U.S. but there’s not much of it left in Canada. Stewart complains there are too many regional and single-issue environmental groups and not one general, national organization like a strong Sierra Club in Canada.

"The tarsands wouldn’t have such clear sailing if we had a Sierra Club," he said.

He recalls how Sierra Club members would descend on Washington three or four times a year. Senators and Congressmen set aside one day a year just to hear from Sierra Club members. "Can you imagine something like that in Ottawa?" Stewart had a chance to wander the halls of power in Washington on some of those visits.

"We need a strong Sierra Club. Just about the only people speaking up for the environment today are the native people, and they’re right, in my opinion, but they’re not being listened to," said the 77-year-old Stewart.

"There are fewer places we can get out and be by ourselves anymore, especially in the United States."

Perhaps Stewart’s saving grace is that few handle controversy with such good humour. He seems to relish it and gets accused of playing the contrarian role at council meetings just to stir things up.

"We get into a lot of trouble in council with farmers raising hell. And people say I like that. And I thought, yeah, I do kind of like that. I think what I like is calming them down and getting them to do something."

His farm is just south of Goodlands, a half kilometre from the Canada-United States border, and a short drive to the Saskatchewan border. When people attack farmers, he points out how well they’ve adopted zero-tillage farming to prevent soil erosion. "We had winds this spring where ordinarily you wouldn’t be able to see our barn," he said.

Stewart admits to something else, beside being a conventional farmer — he’s admits he’s only human and not a perfect environmentalist. "I’ve got some inconsistencies," he says.

Like those four new oil wells on his farm, with four more on the way. He holds mineral rights, which can mean returns of 15 per cent or more in royalties on everything pumped from the ground.

"I knew you’d mention it. It does give me a few qualms," he said. "You rationalize it by telling yourself you’re going to spend the money for good."

However, the oil wells are easy to access and don’t leave a large footprint — and the world still needs energy.

"I agree with the fundamentalist environment people but it’s impossible to live like that. You have to accept some things as being part of life," he said.

The Sierra Club is North America’s oldest environment group, founded as a mountain climbers’ club in California by John Muir, formerly of Scotland and Canada. It came to national prominence in the early 1900s when Muir led the club in a fight to stop construction of a dam flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. They lost the fight but an environmental group was born.

If the Sierra Club sounds like the dinner jacket and tennis club set of environment groups, there’s some truth to that. Many professionals such as doctors, lawyers and professors run the organization.

"That’s a big criticism of the club, that it’s elitist," Stewart acknowledges. That doesn’t change their commitment to the environment. "They’re all people who care deeply about the Earth, every one of them."

A couple of projects Stewart has on the go with the RM of Brenda include helping the Turtle Mountain Conservation District to build gates to control runoff from the Turtle Mountains that regularly causes creeks to overflow. He also wants to pipe in potable water to his area from the Oak Lake aquifer. Many farmers here still have to haul water from community wells.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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