Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. His "Sharp Edges" column appears every Saturday in the print edition of The Penticton Herald.

Spring in the Okanagan Valley sees yellow flowers everywhere. There are two kinds of yellow flowers. One, the familiar dandelion, grows only on land that has been cultivated. Altered by human intervention.

The other, the Arrowleaf Balsamroot, grows only on wild land.

At the height of the Arrowleaf season, I set out to hike a favourite trail that winds around the slopes above Okanagan Lake with spectacular views everywhere.

That trail has been there for at least 28 years — as long as I’ve lived here — and always open to the public.

This time was different. The new owners of the land at the north end of the trail erected “No Trespassing” signs. Right across the trail, where they couldn’t be ignored.

So I went to the south end.

The developers there had previously installed a signboard, taking credit for maintaining trails that had been there long before they began building subdivisions. But instead of maintaining the trail, the owners had bulldozed it.

So that they could expand with yet another subdivision.

Bare earth. Loose rocks. Not a tree left. Not a single yellow flower.

In both cases, the owners had every right to do what they did. In our social structure, private property is close to sacred. It’s his land; he can do whatever he wants with it.

The tombstones Moses dragged down Mt. Sinai said so, didn’t they?

The problem, it seems to me, as that we humans don’t know how to value anything unless it can be taxed.

Undeveloped lands have no intrinsic value.

Currently, an organization of tree-huggers is trying to save an old growth forest on Vancouver Island. Ironically, to demonstrate its un-logged value, they have to show how it will increase the value of the neighbouring forests — which will be logged.

Old growth forests, magnificent as they are, have no value in themselves.

Just as unpolluted streams have no value in themselves.

Yellow flowers growing wild on hillsides have no value.

Parks and wild lands are not treated as assets in municipal accounting, because they don’t produce tax revenue. Even though they certainly add value to other real estate. Imagine Vancouver without Stanley Park. Or New York without Central Park.

An eye-opening article in the June issue of Broadview magazine suggests that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The article features the town of Gibsons, long known as Gibson’s Landing, site of CBC TV’s long-running Beachcombers program.

Gibsons, writes author Alanna Mitchell, “is one of the first municipalities in the world to declare that nature has a formal book value.”

By way of example, the town sits on an underground aquifer, which stores and purifies the town water supply.

Town officials wondered what it would cost to replace the “services” provided by the aquifer, should it fail or become unusable. That process let them establish a value for the aquifer, which now has its own line item in the annual budget.

Cooperating with the aquifer has actually saved money for Gibsons. The town needed to improve drainage, from the upper part of town to the lower. The usual engineering solution would bulldoze the hillside and install concrete pipes. At a cost of around $4.5 million — too much for a town of just 4,600 people.

But expanding existing ponds that fed the aquifer, Mitchell reports, did “a better job, at less than a quarter of the cost.”

Town representatives, she says, “have been presenting the ‘Gibsons Model’ of bookkeeping all over the world.”

She calls it “the polar opposite of how people have traditionally thought about nature: something to be controlled, perhaps feared, but certainly hemmed in and made use of for human needs.”

More than 20 Canadian towns and cities have signed on to learn from Gibsons “how to build an inventory of their own natural assets and how to manage them -- just as they would a water treatment plant or a sewage system.”

And why not? As the old-growth forest supporters have shown, the natural areas enhance the value of the developed areas. Without the wild ridges, the canyons, the lakes and the streams of the Okanagan valley, an endless vista of look-alike roofs would have much less appeal.

“In the old days,” Mitchell mused, “developers of new subdivisions would scrape everything off a plot of land before building.”

Not just in the old days. It’s exactly what they are still doing in my community.

And they can, and will continue. Because natural land has no value in our accounting systems.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca