The Restoration Economy

Yinta - a Wet’suwet’en word. “The health of the land is the health of the people. We are the land and the land is us.” 

Salmon are a keystone species. Thus, restoration of salmon habitat is critical to ensure we have a functioning ecosystem in the future. Restoration can be done in a way that yields multiple outcomes including economic, social, ecosystem and cultural benefits.

The Babine watershed, where more than 90% of Skeena sockeye come from, has been overdeveloped. There are some who feel it is beyond help and should be considered a sacrifice zone. However, the Wild Salmon Policy (WSP) places conservation of salmon and their habitats as the first priority for resource management. Implementation of the WSP begins in 2018. It is a federal policy without legally binding legislation while resource development is permitted provincially. There is a disconnect between how development is conducted and how wild salmon are managed. 

The WSP uses several indicators to determine risk to salmon health by creating a sort of “impact threshold” for each indicator. The density of stream crossings, road density, percentage of total land disturbance or riparian area disturbance are just a few of these indicators. 

As a GIS exercise, the Babine watershed - a sub-basin of the Skeena, was divided into 51 sub-watersheds. Each sub-watershed was then assessed and given a value for each indicator listed in the WSP. We learned that some sub-watersheds had 200%-300% more development than the high-risk threshold would have allowed if implemented. When cumulative effects were considered, we had to create a new category titled, extreme risk, to demonstrate just how much habitat destruction has happened. It is clear, that without restoration and with the impacts of climate change, it is likely we will lose the vast majority of our wild Skeena sockeye in this lifetime.

This GIS exercise also provided an opportunity to really understand where restoration is needed. We know where roads need to be unbuilt or which stream crossings can be removed or replaced with bridges. We know which riparian areas need wetland restoration or the planting of trees for bank and soil stability and where we need more tree canopies to keep the water cooler.

An over-simplified project plan looks something like the steps listed below:
Step One - send in teams to ground-truth the GIS data and build restoration plans for each sub-watershed.
Step Two - prioritize sub-watersheds based on salmon presence or potential for increased salmon presence and engineer designs for restoration plans.
Step Three - bring in the restoration crews to implement the restoration plans
Step Four - monitor each sub-watershed where restoration took place to determine success, failure or if further work is needed.

These four steps must happen in parallel with legislation implemented by the BC Government that recognized WSP thresholds as a filter for permitting and tenuring decisions in regards to resource development in wild salmon watersheds. A sort of go or no-go filter or, a the prescription of a restoration plan in order to get to yes.

So how would we pay for such an undertaking? Unemployment, addictions and income assistance funding is heavily utilized in this region but with little impact. These issues are only worsening despite the investment. We need some of restoration too. After countless conversations with local Indigenous leaders, politicians, biologists, Elders and addictions counsellors, I would like to offer that restoration work could be a way to pull people from the margins and support them in becoming thriving, resilient and empowered community members. A portion of their wage could come from income assistance, employment support, addiction treatment and mental health.

The recipients in these programs would be given employment incentives for an on-the- job training program that restores damaged lands and waters. This type of land-based work conducted in a culturally appropriate manner would help to heal and empower those who were previously unemployed. As one Elder stated, “When you heal the land, you heal the people.” Income assistance funds would help cover a portion of the wages with the goal of transitioning workers off income assistance and into the workforce. The remaining overhead for operations and management could potentially be supported by the revenue earned from the Northwest BC Resource Benefits Alliance, third party funders and the Northern Development Initiative Trust.

This program will need to source camp services (accommodations), food (could be local, healthy foods to promote healing), safety/first aid, counsellors, heavy equipment & operators, tree farms (to replant trees), scientists/biologists, engineers, bridge construction materials (to replace culverts), Elders to hold the cultural component solidly in the camp, onsite addictions treatment and other goods and services. Workers should have the opportunity to experience all these fields through mentorship. As capacity is built, they can transition off of social assistance, join the workforce or be supported to create their own businesses.

Anecdotal data leads me to believe that more than $2 million in income assistance is paid annually in our region of less than 20,000 people. I did not gather data on the amount of employment insurance but imagine it’s very high also. I also didn’t research the cost of having a population that has a fetal alcohol rate of 67%. Wild salmon contribute $110 million annually to the local economy. This does not measure the importance of salmon when it comes to ecosystem services or cultural value. A rough estimate for a 12-week restoration work season is $335K. It would employ about 12 restoration workers, 2 biologists/consultants, 2 Elders, 2 counsellors, 4 cooks, 1 camp manager, 1 project manager and 1 equipment operator. In 5 years, all 51 sub-basins in the Babine could be restored to allow for maximum salmon health and spawning potential.

Essentially, an investment of $1.7 million over 5 years could save wild Skeena sockeye while reducing unemployment, addiction and mental health issues. Thank you Sean and the crew at SFU CED, for the inspiration.