Land Use Regulations, Part 1: How Things Went Wrong

In the environment of the Intermontane Grasslands, in which more and more natural, diverse ecological space is being replaced by simple environments, one could make a strong argument that regulations have actually destroyed ecosystems, and continue to do so. Usually, these regulations are present to control human behaviour. They do that, because humans are, let’s face it, a sneaky bunch. Usually, as well, the regulations control human behaviour by gently regulating land use, just enough to prevent conflict, but not enough to do anything really meaningful. For instance, fencing a grassland that probably looked a lot like this 170 years ago …

Upper Grassland, Farwell Canyon

It’s in perfect shape, but not because of regulation. It has recovered to this point out of economic necessity.

… so that it could be grazed by cattle was done to keep cattle grazers from shooting each other over competition for that grass. Holding the grass in common was actually tried throughout the West, with disastrous and violent results, because whoever got to the grass first got to feed their cattle.

No Longer Productive Grassland along Selah Creek, Washington

After the genocidal Yakima War of 1855 failed (thank God) to kill off the Yakima People (they escaped over this pass but left their herds of cattle behind), they were left with residual rights, which were eroded by the misuse of common grazing. Even the violence that controlled it for a few years became financially unsupportable. Privatization soon followed.

Whoever came second to the grass, had nothing for their cattle to graze on. Sharing was just not possible, unless everyone grazed at once, and when Indigenous people tried that they were shot or put in jail, depending on which side of the English-American treaty line you were on. There were even lynchings. So, private property and fences it was, partly to protect Indigenous people and partly just to get some kind of order into things and keep violence in the hands of the colonial or imperial police, again depending upon which side of the treaty line you were on. Fencing land to fence people, however, had consequences. Compare the grassland at Farwell Canyon above, which was rescued 150 years ago in the Chilcotin after overgrazing made it no longer viable, to a contemporary one in the North Okanagan (below), where the rescue was never made…

There’s almost no grass left to graze!

Instead of the 100s of species a grassland supports, including nearly 200 species of birds, there are about five species, the most common of which are cheatgrass (no one grazes on that) and sagebrush (only really hungry deer graze on that). What’s more, it’s highly flammable. In short, prohibitions on burning, instigated to deny traditional grassland management to Indigenous people, because grass, and farm buildings were too valuable to settler economy to lose (they were all of settler economy) for it to be risked by Indigenous people setting fires for only childish reasons. The reasons weren’t childish, but that’s how they were read. So, now, we have a situation in which boundaries on land have created a highly-flammable, non-productive agricultural space, which now threatens the city of Vernon below it with wildfire every summer. An attempt to control human behaviour has now lead to a desperate need to control the Earth’s behaviour, to actually fence it off from the city, as if that were possible. If that’s not bad enough, whenever there is a fire, the cost of suppressing it is paid by the provincial government, even though the risk was created by private activity, in land removed from public space. It is called a wildfire, even though it is anything but wild, in the same way that for most of settler culture here Indigenous people (and their fire culture) have been called wild, even though they never were. This is one way that regulations are used to transfer shared public wealth into private hands in the name of supporting an economy. Because not all humans adore violence, regulations have attempted to mitigate some of this loss. For instance, a 2000-acre development on the western edge of Vernon, The Rise, was given approval to destroy a grassland on assurances that it would leave creek corridors for birds and deer (essential for grassland health), leave grassland corridors between streets, to ensure that insects and birds remained healthy, and even put up nesting boxes for western bluebirds, to replace lost habitat (aspen trees they might nest in, long grazed off by cattle). Why, populations would increase, on solid scientific evidence.

But, it Didn’t Work.

A few things went wrong. First, the subdivision, which serves largely wealthy settlers from other provinces, went bankrupt several times. Regulational restrictions did not follow the sale through bankruptcy and were not longer laid upon new owners. Second, a set of regulations, designed to keep farmers from shooting deer in mixed rural-urban farming areas, encouraged the contruction of 12-foot-high deer fences, to restrict deer access to farms, thus preventing human conflict, and saving deer from being shot. The result, though, was an overpopulation of deer. Denied access to green summer bottomlands by the fences, and trapped in the sagebrush country created by over a century of cattle grazing behind fences, they ate most of the summer flowers away, decimating beetle and bee populations, and causing a near-total collapse of birds, including the extirpation of Western bluebirds, for which the houses were built. Third, the grassy stretches between subdivision roads, like the one below…

Deer Eating the Green Hearts of Bunchgrass at the Wrong Time of Year

The consequences for winter survival of the grass are dire

… were planted in non-local bunchgrasses, and without the lichen and bacterial communities that kept them fertilized. They thrived for a few years, but have been checked by spiking (and plummeting) rodent communities, the infiltration of weeds, and the relentless tillage of deer, who, blocked by fences, have nowhere else to go. Local regulations promise that wildlife corridors will be maintained, but in the face of these competing regulations and competing realities that means nothing. The deer must graze among houses, where they are termed problem deer and are shot. Currently, the deer are overwintering in orchards (they have learned to bust through fences), and are losing most of their young to coyotes, which are being classified as problem animals as well. There are no birds, because no rocks, lichens, and, especially, flowers were planted, and no (occasional) sagebrushes to water them in the heat. There is a sobering irony here: the gentle compromise of fencing, set up in the fear of human bloodshed or humanly-set fires going wild, while enabling at least one kind of economy on the land, has done nothing to alleviate fear. The fire remains fearsome threat, more than ever before. Mitigation, which could be done by burning, is prevented by private property rights, which are now fiercely maintained. People are afraid of deer and coyotes, pretty much the only animals left here. The land produces no agricultural wealth, and so is settled with houses instead, which increase privatization and further decrease ecological diversity, even when well-thought-through environmental regulations are put in place. Heck, even weather, the atmosphere, and the planet themselves are approached with fear now. And it is scary, no question. It’s not a time, however, for despair. We can do things here, that will make a big improvement. Tomorrow, I would like to present some ideas about how we can regulate these cultural conflicts (yes, cultural, for the land is also a cultural actor and our equal, as all these changes illustrate well), but first I would like us all to consider together that regulations, the very structure of government, has created this mess as much as violent, unregulated human behaviour has. The compromises that were made, some in bad faith and many in good faith, were not the ones we needed in the long term, and it is now the long term. So, let’s sleep on that and wake tomorrow with a renewed resolve.

But let’s not fool ourselves. This is not a situation calling for small modifications and tweaks We are going to have to choose to stay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.