Transboundary Environmental Relations in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest

By Alper, Donald K. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Transboundary Environmental Relations in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest


Alper, Donald K., American Review of Canadian Studies


The far west has long been an area of considerable environmental activity. In British Columbia the environment is a central element of the province's politics. Similarly, in the Pacific Northwest states, and especially Washington and Oregon, the environment consistently ranks very high on state and local government agendas. It is in this region--the Pacific Northwest and B.C.--that many of the largest and best-funded environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, are based and where their activities are often focused. The region is also the site of environmental protests which have sparked international attention of late, the logging of old growth forest in the Clayoquot Sound area of Vancouver Island being the best example. Recent scholarship reveals that citizens in Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle, Washington, hold strong and comparable environmental values (Steel et al. 1995). More than this, environmental concerns play an increasingly important role in the binational and international activities of western provinces and states. These activities vary from extensive participation by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in domestic and transnational environmental issues to more formal institutional linkages between neighboring provinces and states.

The nature of transnational environmental activity has changed in recent years. In the past, there was little organized subnational environmental activity across borders. Provincial and state governments tended to respond in an ad hoc way to specific problems, and in most cases these were handled at the federal level. The International Joint Commission (IJC), created in 1909 to deal with transboundary water questions along the whole of the Canada-U.S. border, was the main institution involved in western environmental issues until the 1980s. In the Trail Smelter case (Murray 1972) only federal governments were involved. The case involved U.S. complaints that sulfur dioxide emissions from the Cominco smelter in Trail, B.C.--ten miles north of the border--had damaged the Columbia Valley in Washington State. The 1931 IJC decision required the smelter to reduce emissions and Canada to pay damages to the U.S. The Columbia River Treaty, ratified in 1964, dealt with flood control and power development (Swainson 1979). The treaty followed fifteen years of negotiation by the IJC, with B.C. playing a major role in the final negotiations. The treaty focused exclusively on transboundary power issues and generally ignored environmental implications. It was not until the resolution of the Skagit/Ross Dam controversy in 1984 that subnational actors, along with NGOs, were principals in a crossborder environmental dispute. The Skagit controversy involved the proposed raising of Ross Dam on the U.S. side of the border and the consequent flooding of a valley in B.C. Although the IJC played an important role in bringing the parties together, much of the negotiations and ultimate policy work were undertaken by B.C. and the City of Seattle (Alper and Monahan 1986). In recent years, the IJC has been less involved. The tendency has been for subnational actors to take more proactive stances on international environmental issues, often in cooperation with transnational environmental groups and networks interested in influencing corporate as well as political behavior. Smith and Goddard speak of the emergence of a "globalist policy phase" in the international activities of B.C. and Washington State (1996). This phase is characterized by the emergence of new issues such as sustainability; the preeminent role played by provincial, state, and municipal governments; new environmental and social activist actors; and bioregional approaches to environmental protection that transcend local/provincial/state contexts and involve broader based international strategies.

This article focuses on some of the recent issues involving the environment in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest states. …

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