Fraser River Gateway Projects - Done Deal?

by Ben West 

“Everything green along the banks of the river over there will all be gone,” said Inger Kam, the organizer of a tour of the Fraser River by paddle boat. Inger was pointing out the potential impacts of one of the so called “Gateway Project” freeways from the window of the boat as we drifted along. 

In my role as a campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, I have been working with Inger and many others to stop the proposed Gateway Project port and highway expansion plan for years. This tour was intended to highlight the potential impacts of this mega-project. As we looked at the untouched waterline, the impacts of the development hit us all in a visceral place. When I got my chance to speak, I asked everyone to consider when a done deal really is a done deal. “This could be a tour of what we were able to save,” I said. From the water the vision of what is at stake became strikingly clear. “I didn’t know how much wilderness there still is in the city,” one fellow passenger told me.

The tour was made up of an interesting mix of long time Gateway opponents as well as folks new to the cause. Participants ranged from teenagers to senior citizens living on both sides of the Fraser. At one table on the boat I saw activists involved in direct action sitting at the same table with folks who had responded to an invitation from their church and were becoming aware of the project for the first time. 

Inger and others did a great job of reminding us of the impacts the Fraser River ecosystem has suffered from development over the years. The Fraser has been the highway for trade for people living in the region for generations, as well as the source of food for aboriginal communities throughout their history. As Europeans settled along the Fraser, industry has built up and expanded along its banks for many decades, and has taken a serious toll on the ecology of the area. 

Burns Bog, the “lungs of the lower mainland,” is a key area for Gateway campaigners and was a major focal point of our tour. The proposed South Fraser Perimeter Road freeway would sever the connection between the bog and the Fraser River. The bog is not just the protected Delta Nature Reserve but is also a complex ecosystem that involves the relationship between the forest, peat, river, farmland and various species. This delicate system would be irreversibly changed if this project were allowed to proceed. These realities were outlined by Eliza Olsen from the Burns Bog Conservation Society. Over the years Eliza has done a great job of spreading awareness of this vitally important local resource and has been a leader in the fight to have this area recognized as a UN Biosphere Reserve. The International Mire Conservation Group placed Burns Bog on its international list of endangered bogs because of the threats of the Gateway Project. 

Another often overlooked area that was highlighted on the tour is Surrey Bend Regional Park in north Surrey. This beautiful protected area is comparable in size to Stanley Park. Unfortunately the Gateway Project aims to pave between the park and the Fraser River. Of late, the Wilderness Committee has been building our first urban witness trail in Surrey Bend to help people see what is at stake, first hand, on the ground. Boat tour passengers were invited to join us for a walk through the trail on one of the many guided tours put on by groups like Surrey Environmental Partners. This park is known to be home to the endangered Pacific Water Shrew, sometimes called the “Jesus Shrew” because it can walk on water. Many other species are also directly threatened by the Gateway Project, including Sandpipers, Sand Hill Cranes, and the Western Red Back Vole. 

One of the big topics of discussion on our tour was the troubling state of salmon in the river. This year Fraser Sockeye runs have been so low that it has led to a judicial inquiry. Meanwhile the Gateway Project with its associated ecological devastation is still being pushed forward. Salmon are a keystone species in the region and the drastic decline of their numbers is a wake-up call. The South Fraser Perimeter Road and the North Fraser Perimeter Road would literally pave all along the riparian zone on either side of the Fraser throughout the lower mainland. People are beginning to see the links between our cars, our roads, and the species they impact. It is clear that industrial development has already stressed this delicate ecological system. The Gateway Project would move us dangerously in the wrong direction, in particular given the global concerns about climate change – and this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

This is not just like any other road-building project. The Gateway Project is a federal plan to expand trade with the Asia Pacific region. It’s a project of significant interest to every sector of big business and level of government. The plan is to expand our “trade capacity” by expanding the port and building new freeways and other infrastructure to service that trade. Gateway infrastructure will facilitate building a new pipeline to export bitumen extracted from the tar sands to Asia, opening up new coal mines, increasing raw log exports and supporting further expansion of the tar sands. In other words, it’s a fundamentally irresponsible plan, both locally and in terms of our role internationally. It’s a plan largely about profiting off selling dirty energy sources that cause global warming to some of the world’s worst polluters. Many activists call this project the “Gateway to Global Warming.” 

Unfortunately most people in BC, if they have heard about the project at all, think only about the proposed twinning of the Port Mann Bridge when they hear about Gateway. The image of a gateway between the suburbs and the city springs to mind, and the sales pitch has usually focused around helping people stuck in traffic. 

The truth is that this is a project with the stated goal of tripling the number of shipping vessels in the port as well as the number of diesel trucks passing through the region. This is a project about treating people and the ecosystem as a doormat, a shipping corridor, and a sacrifice zone. Since day one there has been a well-funded, well-organized campaign to convince the public that this was a done deal. 

So is the Gateway Project a done deal? The simple answer is no. Most of this project is still a proposal. Much of the highway expansion is years away. Many homes in its path have still not been expropriated and pre-load sand must sit for years on bog land before it’s settled and ready for pavement. Citizens from both sides of the Fraser are rising up to fight against climate change and the waste of billions in tax dollars represented and inherent in the Gateway Project. People like Inger have been knocking on doors and working at the grassroots level, and communities are still picking up steam. They are fighting for community health and safety, the protection of endangered species, invaluable farmland and of course Burns Bog. Your help is needed no matter where you live or how you want to get involved. Please visit www.gatewaysucks.org or contact me at ben@wildernesscommittee.org.

***

Ben West, Healthy Communities Campaigner, for the Wilderness Committee, has explored various avenues to make change for the better, ranging from film-making to political organizing. 

[From WS January/February 2010]

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