Communities include grass and flowers, animals, insects, birds, trees, water, gravity, people, sun, rock, dust, soil and wind. Each contributes to maintaining a community balance. ANew communities built in the grasslands need to fit into it. Replacing the balance, as British Columbia did when it became a British colony in 1858, and again when its solution to bankruptcy was to become a Canadian province in 1871 to get its books in order, is no longer an option. The land is dying.
Of all of the spring life above, only the little star of a yarrow in the upper right, the balsam root making a star in the centre and the deer that came to eat the balsam root (can you see their footsteps?) are part of the balance. The rest is an unproductive, non-contributing mix of weeds, unable to sustain soil, birds, humans, water, air, bears, beetles, bees, flies or anything else that makes this land a living place. The land is on its last gasp.
Note the plastic beneath the rocks, to prepare for a larger layer of shade cloth, to be covered with gravel, to prevent life from rejoining this land. This is what is currently called environmental responsibility, the purported lessening of the footprint of a house on the land.
When most people talk about the Okanagan, they talk about a pristine region of great natural beauty. They are not talking about the land, though. It was trashed long ago. They are talking about British Columbia, the colonial state and its settlement patterns. Those are real, too.
Like the earlier, life-based Okanagan, it is sustainable. We should be clear about that. In the case of the grassland, sustainability means a balance of natural forces. In the case of the colonial settlement, sustainability means a continued influx of new settlers and new workers, to preserve a monetary-based economy powered by the social leveraging of ownership rights. To preserve the “proper” environmental balance, wealthy settlers from Canada or Europe are granted leave to buy property. The model was created by Hudson’s Bay Factor James Douglas around Victoria in the 1850s, as he sought to create a British colony, rather than the one he had previously run, Fort Vancouver, across the Columbia River from Portland, which was overrun by Americans. He failed down south. It has worked out pretty well up north.
People are willing to make the sacrifice, though. Anything, when status is at stake. If you read the fine print, these green builders have won the award for best home for $3,000,000. Imagine how much grassland you could restore for that money.
Visitors are encouraged from anywhere, even the United States. “Poor” workers, however, are granted 6-month-long work visas, then they must return home, many to Mexico. This is a system that eats land, converts it into housing estates, converts working farms into aesthetic experiences, keeps Indigenous experience on reservations, and looks at the remaining undeveloped land as a resource. It is mined and logged ferociously to help pay for the dream. Its lakes are turned into reservoirs, to pump water into the colonial settlements, to maintain them in a climate they are unsuited for. All in all, the land is turned into a machine, to serve an economic elite. It works, if one can manage to set the racist ethics behind it aside…but only to a point. When fire comes, for example, or heat, the machine, which has been set to run at full throttle at a lower level of stress, overheats and breaks down. At that point, the land is considered an enemy, and provincial and national resources are thrown at it. Well over 200 million dollars was spent fighting fire in British Columbia this last summer. Here’s the news from August 7, 2021:
Now, we can’t solve all these problems here today, and the problems of social elites and dense cities drawing down living resources have been with humankind for at least 10,000 years, but we can make improvements that will, at least, ensure that this land in the valley, the land we all live on, is sustainable in ways that don’t demand its continued and increasing destruction.
Vast sums of money have been spent to re-engineer this old cattle ranch, on older gold-mining land, on an older series of tiny pockets of wind-blown loess between craggy, broken seabeds and volcanic intrusions. The goal is a view vineyard. The owner is currently trying to stop the erosion that his poorly-planned road-building created, which caused flooding in houses below. It was a justified complaint, and was supported by civic regulations, which put a halt to development while the owner sorts it all out. It sure would have been better for the land if regulation guided him into creating life here, rather than denying these 2,000 acres to deer, who have been using it for millenia, and thereby diminishing it (not to mention all the other losses a monoculture brings). Between the vineyard and the houses in back, a landscape capable of maintaining itself over thousands of years in a steady, healthy state, generating its own weather, managing its own water in intricate ways, preventing snow run-off and evaporation, surviving all kinds of climactic extremes, growing continually richer with life, will eventually be reduced here to a landscape of sagebrush, weeds, a few balsam roots and lupines, no songbirds, no deer or bears or coyotes, some voles and hawks, firs and pines on the steeper slopes, a few saskatoons without people to pick them, and people. It will be sustainable, as a system, for as long as people come in large numbers to keep the property prices up, to pay for huge homes too far from town for the working young to afford, and to support this winery. That is a political price, paid in exchange for a landscape that could have been built in balance with the land and which could have gained from it the capacity to survive for 10,000 years. How long can the new system last? A generation? Two? A hundred years? Who will pay for it? The only industry here is settlement and the provision of amenities to add aesthetic value to settlement. Nice values.
The money to pay for it (and the ten Mexican men who work on the orchard above in the summers) must always come from somewhere else. That’s how capital works. It’s not, however, how the land works. So, with that in mind, let’s look at what the land needs in order to create a sustainable environment. First, it needs work. It needs to be able to produce. The orchard and vineyard above do that for the colonial state, as they repeat the colonial act of settlement and ownership, but they don’t produce for the land. Accordingly, the first regulation should be:
- There is enough surplus food grown on the land to support human harvesting after other species have taken what they need. The choke cherries below were unharvested by early December. When it got down to Minus 26 over solstice, the birds used them to survive. We need to plant more choke cherries, over more decorative grasses.
2. Arguments will be made that fruit will attract bears. Accordingly, a second set of regulations will have to regulate where these crops can be planted, to minimalize human-bear contact, and to guarantee bear and human safety, not just the latter. The irony is that there is an unfilled market for choke cherries. They produce the world’s best kirsch.
Currently, wildlife corridors snake down through the subdivisions, in narrow bands just off house porches.
Construction has consequences. Accordingly,
3. setbacks for riparian areas and wildlife corridors must increase, with enough shelter given that wildlife can pass through without feeling threatened. The landscape depends upon them. Besides, when forced to cross the landscape laterally, deer erode it. At the same time …
4. wildlife corridors must go somewhere. They must lead from highland to low land, to give animals a living environment across the seasonal spread that altitude gives. Without that, almost nothing can survive here. At the same time, water nees corridors as well. Under current regulations, they are understood as free-flowing watercourses, but that’s not how water moves in a valley trough in a repressurized, super-dessicated rain shadow environment. If it flows freely, it is lost to the sky. Accordingly…
Here at the eastern toe of the Cascade Mountains, whatever snow or rain falls usually never makes it to the ground. What does, must be hidden immediately, if there is to be life.
5. Bunchgrasses must be planted to capture this water, and release it to each other as the season dries. At the same time:
6. Big sagebrush must be planted, to draw on water that has slipped deep past the grasses, so it can be distributed to flowers. The birds that feed on insects feeding on the flowers keep the soil tilled, prevent overseeding of sagebrush, and encourage the seeding of flowers. No flowers = no birds. No birds = no flowers. Currently, we plant highways instead. The residents at some subdivisions spend $300 per month on landscaping, in their strata fees. This landscaping needs to be regulated towards life-supporting ends, rather than decorative lawns.
At the same time that grass and sagebrush are holding water, storing it, then moving it vertically when the land is dried out by the sun (we call that drought, one of the effects we are promised for our future under climate change), they collect it all winter, even in the coldest months, preventing spring floods (another of the effects we are promised as warnings against climate change.) In contrast to that, our subdivisions are built on hills, for the views, a primary requirement for aesthetic enjoyment of views of a settled land, with roads leading downhill. Whereas the native environment stores water in place and prevents it from flowing, the settled environment directs it all downhill, keeping little in place, or giving it to plants that can’t store it or use it to maintain deep soil profiles. Bunchgrass is seeded, under the myth that grass stabilizes slopes, without understanding that bunchgrass does not, especially when trapped deer erode it. Bunchgrass stabilizes water. Accordingly,
7. There will be no storm sewers. Snow and rainwater will be collected by plant systems onsite; water from house eaves will be collected for irrigation; road runoff will be stored and diverted block by block into small local wetlands, to replace ones lost in the valley bottom, or made available block by block for irrigation, with priority to native berry bushes; only sewer water will be collected for treatment. Better yet:
8. Sewage will be reduced to greywater onsite using composting toilets.
In this way, water is managed, floods are contained, drought is abated, animals are fed, and corridors are rich. The land is alive and some of the more egregious problems of climate change are effectively managed. Horribly enough (“ironically” would just be the wrong way to put this), the implications are that here, right here…
… climate change has already occurred, and it is precisely the result of fencing the land, privatizing it and turning it into a clumsy machine, in ways that disregard how water and life work together here. Not somewhere else, but right here. In other words, land regulations caused climate change; a change in land regulations can give us the space to deal with the more global side of the picture. At the same time, replacing this water-stealing and fire-encouraging green cheatgrass…
… with bunchgrass, that can hold water through the hot months, getting the cattle off of it (note how low they have cropped everything) so the grass can do its work, and thinning the big sage by at least a factor of 10, to enable more carbon storage (grass responds positively to increased atmospheric carbon), will help alleviate some of the increasing atmospheric carbon. Simply trying to store it in over-dense highland forests only brings fire in a land itself trying to replace them with grass, as its own response to climatic conditions. Accordingly:
9. Regulate the return of forests to their state 150 years ago. How much that is varies, but it’s between 1% and 10% of what is currently present.
And if you think it costs too much, just think of this:
- Millions are spent on water systems.
- Millions are spent on roads.
- Millions are spent on fire suppression.
- Millions are spent on subsidies to orchards.
- Millions are already spent on thinning forests in watersheds, to prevent fire and flood.
- Millions are spent on flood relief.
- Millions are spent by families dislocated by evacuation orders.
- Tens of millions are lost to washed-out roads.
Regulating land use to match the land’s needs in that location is, in comparison, comparatively a bargain. Not convinced? Then let’s get proactive. Should the, say, 40,000 houses of Greater Vernon lose insurance coverage because of fire risk, it would be a disaster. If our insurance costs went up $1000 per house, we’d be in pain. But if we all contributed $250 to an environmental fund, we’d have 10 million dollars a year to control fire ahead of its ignition. That’s cheaper than insurance. And with that in place,
10. Any future infractions on the public good by the over-production of sagebrush on private land would be penalized.
We can’t undo 180 years of history overnight, but we can help each other get there. The current land-and-water understandings were created by American gold rush miners in California in 1849 and carried to the Fraser River in British Columbia in 1858, without the oversight of any law whatsoever. We are now paying the price.
We don’t have to.
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