Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Changing Boundaries = Lipstick on a Pig

Tonight I'm up to present a short submission at the Electoral Boundaries Commission review. Here's what I plan to say....

The main consideration for adjusting boundaries is to ensure that every riding has the same number of voters. This ensures that every MP represents the same number of voters. Considerations of "community" and geography are also taken into account, but the primary driver is the number of voters.

Ajusting riding boundaries is always a controversial issue. This is because adjustments affect the outcomes of elections. If support for political parties were randomly distributed throughout each riding, then drawing boundaries would not have a large effect. However, this is not the case. There are "voting communities"; groups of people who tend to live in the same geographic area, who tend to support one political party over another. This may be because of cultural affinities, historical perspectives, or any number of other reasons.

New Westminster, for example, votes preferentially for the NDP (most polling stations throughout our two Federal ridings gave >50% support to their respective NDP candidates in the last Federal election), whereas in Coquitlam, there are many polling stations that gave much more support to the Conservative party (>50%). (poll-by-poll numbers available here)

So, changing riding boundaries can move blocks of party support from one riding to another, which, due to Canada's single-member electoral system, means that blocks of voters may suddenly go from having a representative they support, to having an MP from a party they do NOT support. Every time boundaries change, different blocks of voters go from having effective representation, to having effectively NO representation.

This annoys voters - not to mention the MP's affected by such changes. This is why people come to Electoral Boundary Commission Hearings to vent their frustrations!

There is no solution to this problem. No matter what boundaries are chosen, on average more than 1/2 of Canada's electorate - the majority! - does not have an MP from a party they support. How is this fair? I find this unforgiveable in a modern democracy.

There are two ways to address the situation. One is by extreme gerrymandering: adjust boundaries on a polling-station-by-polling-station basis so that the maximum number of voters get their choice (from the previous election) elected - ie. give the incumbent the maximal advantage. "More conservative" neighborhoods would form separate ridings from "more labour-oriented" streets. This is done with great effect in the United States. It would clearly result in ridiculously complex electoral maps, and is highly unlikely to find favour with the general public, exactly because it confers large advantage to the last person who won the "riding" (the incumbent).

The other solution is to move to multi-member ridings, so that more than one MP is chosen per (larger) riding. Such a change would have to go hand-in-hand with a move to proportional representation. There are many systems that give proportional results and they are in use around the world. Such systems have many advantages; the first being that many more voters have an MP from a party that they support. Riding boundaries become far less important in proportional systems. Moving to such a system would not change our system of government (Westminster-style Parliamentary system) at all. It would just change how we choose our representatives.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Whistler Mountain Biking! Car Free Holiday Number 7!

Yeah, Whistler is fun in summer too!

Actually, it is busier during the sunny months than during the snowy ones...the Village is hopping, all the restaurants, bistros and bars full, and in the evenings everyone's strolling around licking ice-creams. Very Euro!

So, as in winter, you can get yerself there by bus. Accoms can be easily booked via the central website.

In summer the main attraction here is mountain biking. This comes in a few different varieties:
  • rent a cruiser bike and ride around in the valley on the paved trails - nice 'n easy
  • rent a basic mountain bike (front shocks only) and take it up and down the myriad single-track trails around Whistler
  • get yourself fully kitted out with top-notch bike and body armour, and hurl yourself down the mountain
We did all three. I gotta say, the last option was fun, but downhill mountain biking is definitely a young man's sport. At 49, I was - by far - the oldest woman on the hill that day. Not that I even saw more than 3 women...We saw 2 ambulances cart away injured riders, and apparently the spinal trauma center in Whistler is busier in the summer biking season off of the single bike park, than all winter from both mountains...if you've never done this, a lesson is probably advised, and do take it easy!

This is also the priciest option; the bikes, armour, and lift ticket add up! Really, the best way to enjoy this sport is by renting the right equipment. I do a lot of biking, but I don't own the type of bike that is meant for flinging oneself at high speed down gravel trails. The double-suspension and hydraulic brakes really make it much more enjoyable and safe.

There are lots of bears to be seen on the slopes; they ignore the mountain bikers as long as you just cruise by, but you do have to be aware that they are likely to be in the meadows.

[black bear in the mountain bike park]

My favourite biking was the single-track trails around Lost Lake, which are a mix of "green" - wide gravel paths - and "blue" - single-track dirt trails with some logs and bridges. You zip up the greens and down the blues! You don't need body armour for this, and a bike with front suspension only and disk brakes (non-hydraulic) is fine. Probably the type of bike you already own... No lift ticket either! And you can use the same equipment to ride the asphalt once you're tired of going up and down.

The trails shut down in early October (Thanksgiving), as does the downhill stuff.

There are other activities to do in Whistler as well: ziplining (too high for me!), golf (yech), bear-viewing (just hang around in the village in the fall and you can see 'em for free...)...

And not to forget the stupendous hiking to be had; you can take the lift up to mainline it straight to the Alpine, or you can do it "traditional style" by starting at the bottom. When we were there this year in July there was still a ton of snow at the top so the hiking was actually pretty limited. But by late August and early September the trails are beautiful!

[snow at the top of Whistler Mountain in July]

The last thing that's worth considering is the evening BBQ at the Roundhouse. Buy tickets in advance, and then head up for a day hike. Once you're done your hike you can hang around the top and get nice food, a beer, and enjoy the scenery before taking the gondola down.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sustainable Logging?

Since my holidays I've been  pondering logging, both of the clear-cutting and helicopter variety, because these activities were present in the remote areas around Bella Coola. The clear-cutting stopped in the late 80's, and now all that goes on is helicopter logging: small patches are clear-cut, and a few high-value logs are airlifted out.

Years ago, I visited Wildwood, the 70-acre woodlot owned and managed by Merv Wilkinson for many years, and now owned by The Land Conservancy (TLC) and run by the Ecoforestry Institute. The woodlot is just outside of Nanaimo, in an area of spawling residential acreages, near where my sister lives, so that's how I heard about it. When I visited, Merv was still alive (he passed away at 97 last year) and his woodlot had just been taken over by TLC. They gave tours and talking to Merv was part of that.

There's a book written about the woodlot by Merv, which is an interesting read. Merv bought the lot in the late 30's and started logging it "by hand", starting with European forest-management principles and modifying them over the years to be more conservative (in the sense of "conserving"). The basic idea is single-tree selective logging. All logs were hauled out by horse and milled on site with a small portable sawmill (not his). Merv made money off of his woodlot, and the wood he harvested was apparently of better quality than the local clearcut stuff. The lot has more and better-quality trees on it now than when he started.

This is what the Ecoforestry folks will tell you, and what is in his book. Merv became a hero to the sustainable logging community and was awarded the Order of BC as well as the Order of Canada. There's no doubt that he pioneered the practise of, and education in, less-destructive forestry techniques, against the flood of clear-cut logging going on at the time.

But, what isn't emphasized is that Merv never made a full-time living off of his woodlot. It was not large enough to support him and his family fully. Of course, how much exactly a "living" is, is a bit vague, but Merv lived on his land in a cabin he built, and did not by any stretch have an extravagant lifestyle. No flat-screen TV or Disneyland holidays, in other words.

In order to really make a living from forestry, you need a bigger woodlot. There is probably a limit to how big your lot can be before you need to start making use of machinery for the hauling, which then gets you into a different economic model: more cash flow to finance your equipment...In fact, it's not a given that at today's land and commodity prices, you could make such a private woodlot work: how much income would it need to generate for you to be able to pay the mortgage? (That is, if you can even find such a woodlot to purchase.)

In fact, unless you buy your woodlot, you'll have to lease land from the Crown, like the logging companies do. Then you'll need to adhere to the Forest and Range Practises Act, which includes the Forest Practises Code. I'm pretty sure you can't then manage your woodlot like Merv did. I suspect his techniques are only available to privately owned woodlots. Moving wholesale to a small woodlot forestry industry would require some pretty major shifts in legislation, here in BC. Even community forests here find themselves basically forced into clear-cutting. Probably such a shift can only happen if the big forestry companies pull out almost entirely. They have a lot of lobbying power (since they employ a lot of people and have a lot of capital invested) - although this is changing...

If you have ever been to Europe, their forests are highly managed and "sustainable" in some sense, anyways. Mostly, the model is of "community forests", with community-hired "civil servants" doing the management / logging. They do not clear-cut. That said, the French, German and Swiss forests I've seen are basically manicured parks with some non-threatening wildlife running around in them. Beautiful, but riddled with roads. Not a whole lot of wilderness left. I'm pretty sure this is not what the good people at the Ecoforestry Institute are aiming for.

[a managed European deciduous forest ]

I find it hard to come up with an example, a model or vision, of what "sustainable logging" would look like here in BC. These are some of the things I'm trying to consider while trying to imagine how "family owned woodlot forestry" would work:

  • How many families could be supported here in BC on Merv's forestry practises?
  • Where would they live? What areas of BC would be "sold off" to accomodate such an industry?
  • How would standards be enforced?
  • How would they ship their product to market? Would they have access to roads? Modern telecommunications infrastructure?
  • What would healthcare and education systems for them look like? 
  • How would First Nations land claims issues and economic development fit in with this?
It's pretty clear that BC would be a completely different place if this was how forestry was practised. While I'm no fan of clear-cut logging, I think it's also unrealistic to expect a large-scale return to small woodlots, for the same reasons that the small, diverse, family farm isn't a thriving business model anymore, either...the biggest reason being: it's hard and risky physical work, and the pay is crap. Given the available alternatives people leave in droves.

And then just as I was pondering these issues, this sad and ironic epilogue came to my attention...

I heard on the news the other day that the Land Conservancy is bankrupt. Sounds like they were leveraging themselves blue in order to get more land protected...I fear at least some assets will now have to be sold to get their debts under control. This is pretty sad, since TLC has been the recipient of many bequests of land by people wanting to preserve their properties from development "forever". Who knows if Wildwood will be part of the sale?

Not only this, but Merv's woodlot has apparently been in trouble for a while...before he died, Merv put together a pretty damning "report card" of how the Ecoforestry folks were running the place. In a nutshell, apparently they weren't. They had stopped logging altogether - there have been less than a dozen trees cut on the property since 1999 when the woodlot was turned over to TLC. In fact, their website says the following (emphasis mine):

"The initial concept was an economic one - to harvest only the annual growth rate, but over time ecological criteria were added to the decision making process, so that now the goal is to manage for ecological function first and foremost and see how humans can fit in without diminishing the ecological functioning of the forest."

Basically they've turned it into a park. So in fact, it is not a woodlot anymore, and can't be used as a demonstration of sustainable forestry.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lovely Akron, Ohio

All right, one of the downsides of my job is that sometimes (rarely, thankfully), I have to leave my comfortable home in lovely New Westminster to travel abroad. Abroad would probably be bearable if it weren't the US. But usually it means going south of the border.
Like this time. Here I am in lovely Akron, Ohio. Just an hour south of Cleveland.
I'm trying to get the lay of the land here but it's hard. There are not many landmarks in this rolling country of deciduous trees and sprawl. It all looks so much the same. I'm glad I rented a GPS unit to go with my navy Dodge Charger...especially since the car rental place doesn't hand out maps. These seem to have gone the way of cuniform.
I've got lots to complain about. Things like:
  • endless highway, all at least 6 lanes. Intersecting highways. Multiple parallel routes. I can't figure out why they need so many, but they've got 'em. Mostly in a shitty state of repair, too: lines mostly worn away and crappy road surface. Decaying infrastructure = your taxes are too low!
  • strip malls. OMG. The sheer quantity of car-oriented shopping is simply staggering.  The malls all seem to be "outside" ones, meaning that you have to walk along the outside of the mall to get from store to store. There's no "inside" to the mall. And the acres of parking outside these boxes means that you end up driving from one mall to the next. The entire length of HWY 77 from Cleveland to Akron seems lined with these things.
  • chain restaurants. Again, the number of them available is staggering. The strip malls consist of about an equal number of stores and restaurants. Some of them have outdoor patios, which overlook parking lots. How scenic. Almost all eating etablishments are part of a chain. I've not found a non-chain restaurant, but then I guess I'm in the wrong part of the country for that??? Maybe in downtown Cleveland you can find such a thing??
  • the weather: humid and warm. Yech. You have to sleep with the airco on, which I loathe - the noise and that fake cold air.
  • dinner conversation: tires and cars. Two topics on which I have nothing to contribute. How you can fill 45 minutes with talk about car tires boggles my mind....but it is possible. I just witnessed it.
To be honest, though, there are some things that aren't bad about this place. On the plus side we've got:
  • endless highways. The toll ones, I mean. If only Canada could get off this idea of having free road space. I admit I got a bit freaked out when that nice GPS lady directed me to the toll highway, but it turns out that they'll take your (Canadian) credit card. My company just subsized the US road system by $1.15.
  • strip malls. OMG. The sheer amount of shopping is amazing. The choice here is huge. I just picked up a travel speaker for my iPhone for $40 that isn't even on the shelves in Canada. And the variety of plus-sized clothing is truly .... sobering.
  • chain restaurants. They are not actually that bad. Some of them, anyways. Not great food, but not too shabby if you know which ones to go to. Luckily my American colleagues know (because I don't, and believe me, there are some crappy ones!). And they actually have decent beer these days - I just had a Belgian-style wheat beer on tap. Nice! Most of these chains aren't in Canada - only the crappy ones.
  • the weather: at least it's warm here, you can still sit outside without a sweater in the evenings. Even if it's kinda sticky.
  • dinner conversation: guns and politics. I'm endlessly fascinated with what these two issues illustrate about our two countries, which are, after all, not really that different in many respects...and how colleagues for whom I have a good deal of respect, and who I genuinely like, can support concealed handgun legislation and be staunchly anti-Obamacare.
When we lived in the US (about 15 years ago) we acclimatized pretty quickly. Really, there are wonderful people, lovely countryside, and a lot of very interesting history. It's just that our (and when I say our I of course mean my) knee-jerk reaction as Canadians is so anti-American that one really has to make an effort to snap out of it. Really. Get over it and take this country at face value. You'll have a better time.

Even if you still miss your hubby.