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New book calls for plan to manage gravel reach

'Let's have a grown-up conversation,' says co-author of book calling for a plan to end controversy over gravel mining in the Fraser River
Section of the mighty Fraser River

Some call it the Heart of the Fraser River.

Others call it the Gravel Reach or Sturgeon Reach.

It's that 65-kilometre stretch between Hope and Mission where the river slows after cascading down the mountains to create a unique habitat in the alluvial flats for fish, for wildlife — and for humankind.

And where it drops millions of tons of gravel on its meandering way.

A new book titled the Sturgeon Reach describes this stretch and all its competing interests.

But the book doesn't descend into the tired rhetoric that for years has dominated the gravel mining/habitat conservation controversy.

What it does do is resurrect a call for "a collaborative land-use plan" to protect the environmental — and economic — values found within the reach.

"I think any attempt to try and develop a comprehensive land-use plan that provides a modicum of protection to the river is a wise thing to be doing," says Ben Parfitt, who co-authored the book with Terry Glavin.

But it's going to take more than government intervention — federal, provincial, regional and municipal — to make that happen, the authors say.

It's going to take public pressure.

"This is the only way things ever seem to get done," Glavin says.

But, unfortunately, although it's located in the most densely populated region of B.C., most Lower Mainland residents are not aware of the reach and the treasures — economic, environmental, cultural and recreational — that it contains.

"A lot of British Columbians can spend their whole life living here, and yet not know that stretch of the river very well," says Mark Angelo, who wrote the forward to the book.

The irony, Parfitt says, is that a remote but unique ecosystem called the Great Bear Rain Forest gets provincial protection, including three new land-use planning zones: protected areas; biodiversity, mining and tourism areas (BMTAs); and ecosystem-based management operating areas (EBMs).

But an equally unique ecosystem located under the noses of two million Metro Vancouver residents does not.

Angelo says the reach is home to the largest single salmon spawning run in the world, the largest population of white sturgeon — a prehistoric species that grows over six metres long and lives well over 150 years — at least 30 more species of fish and has served as a migratory corridor for millions of salmon since the end of the last ice age.

The reach is also home to the Sto:lo people who have lived along its banks for thousands of years, and it's a playground to sport fishermen, boaters, campers and other tourists who delight in the beauty of the reach's broad waters, gravel bars and cottonwood stands.

"We have to find a way to initiate and develop a collaborative plan for the reach," Angelo says. "My hope is that all provincial parties can take a stand in that regard in the next election."

The book Glavin and Parfitt have written is going to help kickstart that public awareness, he hopes.

"They're going to bring the Heart of the Fraser alive for many people," he says.

In just 65 pages the two writers take the reader on a trip back in time to the forces that created the Fraser River, the ecosystem that developed in the reach, the uses that the first humans, the Sto:lo people, made of the reach, and today's challenge of mining the rich lodes of gravel deposited there.

The book doesn't take a stand, one way or the other, about gravel removal.

"That's not our job to say no to gravel removal," Glavin says.

But the flood risk argument that government agencies have used to justify removing gravel doesn't hold water, the authors say.

"All of the research shows it has had no measurable impact on flood control," Glavin says.

"If you're going to make the case that it's for flood control, it's not the sort of thing you can argue with a straight face ... it's just not honest to frighten people when there's absolutely no evidence," he says.

"We acknowledge and accept that this is a working river," Parfitt says. "What we're arguing is making it work for the people and fish and ecosystems that depend on that stretch."

And that's going to take the "collaborative land-use plan" that Angelo advocates.

One obstacle to such a plan is the sheer number of "stakeholders" in the reach, from private land owners to First Nations and municipal governments.

"With so many stakeholders, maybe the provincial government can play an enabling role and start work on a collaborative plan," Angelo says.

The Fraser Basin Council started a Lower Fraser Collaborative Initiative last year to bring together stakeholders in the lower part of the river, but Angelo says a separate plan focused on the reach itself is needed.

"Given the amazing values of the Heart of the Fraser, along with the very specific challenges it faces, a more specific collaborative plan is needed," he says. "I think we need a process that's more focused on this area, if we are to make real headway — and it should also be a process that looks in-depth at government-related issues and obstacles."

Glavin says in the course of writing the book he came to have "a lot of sympathy for the gravel industry in B.C." struggling with the province's carbon tax.

"We are actually importing gravel from China," he says, and the BC Gravel Producers' Association has asked the B.C. government for an equivalent tax on imports from countries that have no carbon tax.

But the authors also contend there are other gravel sources on Vancouver Island, which are shipping gravel to Hawaii relatively cheaply.

"There's no reason not to barge it to points where it's needed in B.C.," Parfitt says, and reduce the amount taken from the reach.

But since a moratorium on gravel removal was lifted in 2004, the debate between government agencies and conservationists has deteriorated to one where "people tend to talk over each other," Glavin says.

"Let's have a grown-up conversation," he urges, about the future — or the fate — of the reach.