Squamish: What happens when environmental tools and policies align?


By: Theresa Beer, Communications Specialist

The small community of Squamish was once an epicentre for industrial development, so people there know a lot about the costs of cleaning up when industry leaves town. After decades of recovery efforts to clean up from timber companies, pulp mills, copper mines and commercial fishing, the town — and the Howe Sound region — is experiencing a remarkable marine revival. Residents see the benefits of intact ecosystems as whales and porpoises frolic nearby.

Humans, too, benefit from intact ecosystems. Now there’s a tool to help decision-makers use economic data on the value of services provided by those ecosystems in the Howe Sound area. It turns out that Howe Sound has an astounding trove of unrecognized — and undervalued — natural wealth. The sound acts as the lungs and circulatory system for the entire Lower Mainland region, yet until now we haven’t properly valued the contribution of its ecosystem services.

A new foundation report, Sound Investment: Measuring the Return on Howe Sound’s Ecosystem Assets, found that Howe Sound’s watersheds provide an estimated $800 million to $4.7 billion in ecological services from nature to the region each year. This amount is similar to the yearly contribution of provincial natural resource industries, such as mining, to B.C.’s GDP ($3.38 billion in 2011).

Squamish is recognizing the benefits of a healthy environment on another front. The town recently became the 21st community in Canada to adopt a declaration recognizing the right of its citizens to breathe clean air, drink clean water and consume safe food from healthy soil. The declaration states that council will ensure that costs to human health and the environment are considered in policies and practices. It will encourage council to incorporate nature into decision-making: our natural capital report provides the tools to help them do that.

Keeping ecosystems whole and healthy can ensure that communities have access to our most important needs: clean air and water. Watersheds provide Howe Sound communities with fresh water and benefits associated with the filtering, retention and storage of water. Ecosystems trap and retain nutrients and pollutants and clean or purify water. Air is purified by forests that clean the atmosphere by intercepting airborne particles and absorbing pollutants. A single tree can absorb about five kilograms of air pollution annually and produce enough oxygen to support two people.

In addition to clean water and air, a stable climate, protection from natural disasters and a place to connect with nature are just some of the additional many services nature gives us. The Howe Sound study found beaches (recreation and protecting against storms) had the highest value, followed by wetlands (waste treatment, water supply and habitat) and eelgrass beds (nutrient cycling, carbon storage and habitat).

The B.C. government is considering over $2 billion in industrial projects for the sound, including a gravel mine at McNab Creek, a liquefied natural gas plant in Woodfibre and a waste incinerator in Port Mellon, in the very areas — near the shore — that are the most highly valued in the natural capital study.

Information in the study can be used to modify environmental assessments to incorporate ecosystem services before development approvals, set financial assurances in line with the assessed non-market values and incorporate natural capital into asset-management programs.

The town of Squamish, like many communities in Canada, is at a crossroads where the development decisions it makes now will have a lasting impact. Let’s hope natural capital is at the decision-making table.

-Posted by Ryan

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