Holding the line

by Aaren Madden, September 2010

Environmental activist Zoe Blunt focusses on protecting the places she loves.

For Zoe Blunt, the health of our ecosystems and the sustainability of our cities depends on the same thing: a paradigm shift, in which wilderness, community and human connection to the land are the most valuable currency. It starts with seeing things as they really are, and protecting that which makes a place unique.

Blunt studied journalism and made a comfy living as a fundraiser before devoting herself to defending forests and their ecosystems. “I made a good living, but I was really unhappy, because I felt this was not the most important thing I could be doing…My personal comfort is not as important as preserving the water and the land and the wildlife. That’s what it comes down to,” she says. Now she gets by on disability for nerve damage while working on a book, directing an environmental organization on a shoestring, and pushing developers and government officials to be more responsive to the communities they serve and the environment.

Though known here for her work in Langford and on Olympic protests, in 1997 Blunt left Vancouver to hang out in the Elaho Valley—literally—about 100 feet up in an ancient hemlock. “It was right on the edge of a clearcut—the front line,” she laughs wearily, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, seated in a lush backyard, which on this day is filled with foster-plants belonging to friends forcibly evicted from the community garden they had created. 

In the Elaho, she continues, “I contrived a hammock made out of this thick, thumb-sized rope. I clipped the ends together, so it was like a big cocoon. I was just hanging out, and the trees, they sway back and forth,” she recalls. “But if you look at them closely in the wind, the tops kind of go around, like this,” she says, swirling her hand in a horizontal half loop, “and then they also turn on the long axis. They go back and forth, and round and round, and turn, so I would be looking west one minute, then the wind would come and a few minutes later, I would be looking east. It was…cool,” she nods, smiling. Today, due to combined efforts from many groups, Elaho is a protected Squamish Nation Wild Spirit Place. 

After that sweet victory, Blunt crossed the Salish Sea. She spearheaded resistance to the Bear Mountain development, supporting the tree-sit to stop the Spencer Road interchange which swelled to about three dozen people, and ended when hundreds, by Blunt’s estimation, of tactical RCMP officers with assault rifles cleared out the handful of remaining protesters. Langford Mayor Stew Young threatened to sue Blunt for the costs (“And get what? I own an oriental rug and a five-year-old computer!”). And then there were the death threats. 

It turned out Blunt and other critics were right to question Langford and Len Barrie’s schemes: witness a virtually bankrupt Bear Mountain and the aptly-named “Bridge to Nowhere.”

And the fight isn’t over. Vancouver Island Community Forest Action Network (VIC FAN), which Blunt founded and has directed since 2007, launched a legal suit to quash, for due process violations, Langford’s contentious development bylaw for neighbouring South Skirt Mountain. Through collaboration with other groups and support from places like the Environmental Law Clinic (see Focus, August 2010), VIC FAN is able to fight the big fights. A Supreme Court of BC decision is pending. 

“We’ve all grown up and seen beautiful places that we’ve cared about destroyed. For some of us it’s a transformative experience, and it leads to taking these kinds of risks,” Blunt says. Our ecosystems sustain us, so we need to understand them properly and protect them. “People who don’t know any better might say ‘Oh, here’s some beautiful broom! Some English ivy! A lovely starling! Look at these black slugs; what a lovely ecosystem.’ This is an ecosystem in collapse,” she asserts. All the species she mentions are invasive.

Cities also require a major reality check. “We import almost everything we need to live—food, gas, millions and millions of tons of raw materials to turn into condos, asphalt, at the expense of what was here before. Every city does this; it’s not unique. But it is unsustainable. And that means it will come to an end. Very soon, we will be competing for resources like drinking water,” Blunt cautions. Shirley residents, she notes, are already fighting to preserve the covenant on their drinking water, due to impending Bear Mountain-type development.

Victoria, she predicts, will be unrecognizable in 50 years. It could go one of two ways: In the worst case, developers who are finding it harder to make a buck “are going to get more desperate; they are going to resort to bully tactics more and more.” In the best case, “the municipal governments and the province wake up and realize we can’t continue to value development, infinite growth and the destruction of the natural environment over drinking water. And biodiversity. And wildlife. They seem to forget that these things are not free.”

VIC FAN’s mapping projects help communities like Shirley identify and protect their precious places, with the goal of creating buffer zones and linking wild areas like the Sea to Sea Greenbelt Society is doing. Says Blunt, “That’s a vision I’d like to work towards. And part of that is stopping the sprawl from going any further.” VIC FAN is also actively working to stop logging in the so-called Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew.

Blunt argues that creating more density within existing city boundaries is not the panacea some seem to think, for it just puts more pressure on the land for resources. Can we create truly sustainable cities, or are we fooling ourselves? She’s bemused by Langford’s rosy predictions of a local economy so strong it will enable most residents to walk to work in 30 years, and somehow manage 50 percent reductions in energy consumption in the same time frame of a projected doubling of population. 

And anyway, “all of us in Victoria could give up our cars, plant gardens, wear recycled clothes and use fluorescent light bulbs for the rest of our lives, but the toxic output of the tar sands would offset all those gains in about a day. We should still do all those things, but let’s not delude ourselves. We need to shut down the damn tar sands. And the offshore oil wells, while we’re at it. And the fish farms. And the clearcuts. And the run-of-river projects. It’s such a fascinating time to be an activist in BC. There’s no shortage of things to do.”

Where to start? “The places that are important to you; you need to get to know them and work to protect them,” says Blunt. “That means going to your local zoning and planning committee, your local city council meetings; it means reading all those agendas, staff reports and developers’ proposals and finding ways to slow that down, stop it, get more amenities, get a compromise, send it back to the drawing board.” 

From her hammock in the aforementioned ancient hemlock, Blunt mused on the ephemeral nature of human life, while her view of the clearcut showed our disproportionately infinite potential for damage. There are no easy solutions, but if we are going to find a way out of the corner we have painted ourselves into, or even just hold the line, we must remember, says Blunt, “our connections to each other, to the land, to our culture—a culture of compassion and community, where it’s not just dog-eat-dog, not just every man for himself. Those are the values we need to hang onto.” 

Aaren Madden is looking forward to taking her kids to see the great, gnarly trees that VIC FAN is fighting to protect in Avatar Grove. For a map to these giants, or to donate, go to http://forestaction.wikidot.com. Zoe Blunt blogs at www.wtflangford.blogspot.com.