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Public Participation Process Failure

"I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children's books ask  questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe."   Madeleine L'Engle

Lying stretched on the sun warmed stone with my ear pressed to the granite what do I hear?

The volcanic explosions as the earth forms. Lava spews high in the air and crashes to the cooling water, steam and ash exploding in every direction. Red blue licks of flame crackle from the rock as it meets oxygen for the first time.

And then silence. Slowly the wind and water begin to work on the rock. Sighing and lapping for aeons, wearing the sharp corners into soft round edges. Sand accumulates and then finer earth till gradually plants take root in the soil.

Glaciers ponderously moving across the landscape. Grinding and groaning with weight scraping and scratching across the rock the ice changes the stone again.

The ice retreats one final time while the land fills with all manner of creatures. Approaching the last few moments of history I hear the laughter of children as their moccasioned feet race across the stone.

Coming back to the present my fingers drag across the stone surface feeling the ancient ice scratches. My eyes open taking in the sparkling pink granite. This is the land that I love. Land that has history. Long history. There is much more to this land than the stone yet this is where it all began. Lying with my ear pressed to the stone I hear the past and wonder about the future.

What would those children think if they could see this world now? My thoughts shift to another scene.

Sitting in the echo filled gymnasium, my voice amplified so that the quiver and shake in it seems apparent to the whole world I try and explain this love of land.  The environmental assessment panel sits and listens intently.

"Please excuse this uniform. I came straight from my Scout meeting to make this presentation to you. I must be clear that I in no way represent the Scouting organization as I speak to you. Though in many ways what I am about to say is about the future of the young people I work with. This paradox is just part of the difficulties that we face as we wrestle with the disconnect between sustainable land use and industrial development."

"I have a formal written presentation that I will read to you in a few minutes but first I wish to make a few remarks on the process that I have watched for most of the last few days."

I went on to comment on the contrast between some of the slick smooth professional presentations that I had watched and the heartfelt pleas from people opposed to the project that was being reviewed. I noted the difficult dichotomy that people faced when they wanted the benefits that the project offered for their communities and yet struggled with the costs that it represented. This was my first exposure to the gruelling process that across the globe is called Environmental Assessment.  It has a kin in another process that we call Land Use Planning.  The first process is reactive and the second is proactive.  The goal of both processes though is similar, to reconcile large industrial projects to sustainable environmental practices.

We, the great unwashed public, the "hoi poloi" of Greek times has spoken. We are not happy with the state of the world that we live in.  Bureaucratic machinery which understands that need to feed people and have warm safe places for them to live (and only coincidently soft white paper to wipe their asses) has developed ways to try and gather public input. But what does this mean and does it work? Do these public processes work to reconcile industry and the land that they operate on?

I have been involved in all facets of these processes for the last ten years but it is only now that I come face to face with the fact that I have grave doubts about whether they work or not. Perhaps I should explain the processes and then begin to explain why I think they aren't working.

Environmental Assessment is defined in Canada by a plethora of federal and provincial legislation. At the federal level assessment is guided by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency whose mission is:  "To provide Canadians with high-quality environmental assessments that contribute to informed decision-making in support of sustainable development."

An enviromental assessment is triggered in a variety of ways.

Under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, federal departments and agencies must undertake an environmental assessment before:
- they carry out a project;
- provide financial assistance to enable a project to be carried out;
- sell, lease or otherwise transfer control or administration of land to enable a project to be undertaken; or
- issue an authorization to enable a project to go forward.

While there are three levels of review; screening; comprehensive study; and review panel or mediator it is this last that I am concerned about. A review panel carries out its work of assessment encouraging public participation through a variety of mechanisms. When the assessment is finished the panel submits an advisory report to the government containing conclusions and recommendations. These are examined and the government determines the appropriate course of action.

Extensive public participation is a distinguishing feature of review panels. The public is afforded an opportunity to participate in a thorough study of the environmental effects of projects. The Agency also administers a participant funding program to facilitate the participation of the public in each review panel.

The review panel in most instances is quasi judicial since formal hearings are held with project proponents making a presentation describing the project and its impacts. Other groups are then given the opportunity to respond to the presentation.  The nature of these submissions varies from emotional stories to carefully reasoned scientific performances. There are a variety of circumstances that determine when a review panel assessment is required.

The Minister of the Environment may refer a project to a review panel when:
- it is uncertain whether the project is likely to cause significant adverse  environmental effects; or  
- the project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects  and it is uncertain whether these effects are justified in the  circumstances; or
- public concerns warrant it.

The assessment process is essentially project driven. It only comes into play when there is a project to react to. This project orientation leads to some of the significant difficulties in the process.  People who are trying to build something or carry out a project have to spend significant amounts of money before the project can go ahead with no assurance that the project will ultimately go ahead.  Those people who are opposed to a particular project have to contend with each individual project as it is proposed. Land Use Planning processes attempt to address some of these concerns by planning before projects are proposed.

Land Use Planning has been around for a long time. What has changed about the process recently is the process used to conduct the planning. At one time planning was done by highly trained professionals and then presented to the people as a done deal. No longer. People are demanding to be involved in the planning. This has lead to the growth of public participation in land planning. Land management is a provincial jurisdiction and in northern Saskatchewan is administered in the context of forest management by SERM (Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management.)

SERM describes the purpose and process of land use planning as:

A key purpose of an Integrated Forest Land Use Plan is: to merge use of the land with environmental, economic, social and cultural values of society into a specific plan. It means  balancing use with these values to ensure a healthy environment and the sustainability of the natural resources... Each of these planning initiatives has a comprehensive public involvement process. They include advisory boards, community meetings and information circulation.

In the plan that I am involved in there are seven local advisory boards that contribute to the functioning of a regional board.  In each group the issues are collected and then potential solutions are outlined. The end result should be a comprehensive plan that considers the activities of all potential users of the land. The process is expected to take five years to complete.

Involvement of the people in the process seems such a laudable objective. Why then the frustration with the process? What is the connection between this land that I love, the children of the future and these processes? Why do I no longer trust these processes that I have been involved in for the last ten years?

I sat earlier this week in my gazillionth land use meeting. The fellow sitting beside me has been a sporadic attender at best. I was speechless when he leaned over and growled in a low voice, " I don't know why I come to these meetings. They are so frustrating. We have not talked about anything of substance in the last three."  I knew exactly what he was saying. We are still at the stage of discussing process, how will the group proceed and make decisions.  This is the first of the challenges. Keeping people involved in the process as it proceeds through necessary steps but steps that appear trivial.  These steps take a long time because of the large number of participants.  These are the steps that build trust in the process. At the same time as they are frustrating because they are not dealing with the fact the forest companies are steadily encroaching on his outfitters camp, or that caribou herds are being decimated because they wandered to close to a drill camp the night before. People come and participate because they have immediate burning issues that they want to resolve. The process takes much longer than burning issues can wait.  By the time the plan is complete there is only a pile of smoking slash left.

The processes are seldom successful in achieving the best possible result for the environment and the industry involved.  You will never talk to a forestry company or a mining company that doesn't think it should have had more access to the trees or to the minerals. Niether will you talk to an environmental activist that is entirely satisfied with the protection that has been achieved by the plans.

Participation in the processes always has to keep in mind that ultimately the processes are advisory. Seldom are the recommendations and conclusions accepted in their entirety by government.  Thomas Berger tells the story of standing shaving one morning listening to the radio
after he had completed the Inquiry into the McKenzie Valley Pipeline.  The commentator reported that then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was going to visit the McKenzie Valley area.  "That's it then," Berger said to his wife. No man can visit the calving grounds of the Beverley Caribou Herd and allow the pipeline to proceed. And indeed shortly the moratorium was declared.  This kind of connection however grows less and less likely as people grow more and more distant from the land.  Bureaucrats overrule the objections of the panel who have visited the area and the people with the simple wisdom that " The people don't understand. Society needs...insert here whatever resource is being discussed."  Bureaucrats are reluctant to participate in these processes because it undermines their right of veto at the end.  I would suggest that they are also afraid of having their minds changed when they reconnect with the land and with the people who live on the land.

Ultimately though we have to face the reality that there are too many people for the land that we live on. Gretchen Daily and Paul Ehrlich have estimated that the sustainable population of the earth is about 2 billion people. We are already at 5.6 billion growing by 90 million each year.  It is simply inevitable that we are going to have conflicts. Famine and wars are rampant in our world today.  We have been brought to this because we have not listened to the earth.

Human history is but a brief moment. It was but seconds ago that people travelled these pristine waterways in birch bark canoes. Will our children run and laugh and experience the delight of sun warmed stone? Or will we seal them off forever in tombs of concrete. We can struggle to restore balance or we can simply accept the fact that we will be obliterated.  The public involvement processes are ways in which we struggle to restore balance.  Yet until we confront the underlying issues of population extremes and bureaucratic power mongering they will be ineffective and frustrating ways to participate.

The answer I believe is simple. We must find ways to reconnect these processes and the bureaucrats that control them to the land and to the children who will one day inherit. We have to build processes that give more power than simple advisory capacity. We have to devise ways of leveling the power playing field.