When people join forces for a cause, they can make a big difference, even in a small community like Salmon Arm. In early 2008, people in the city of 16,000 on Shuswap Lake, halfway between Calgary and Vancouver, learned that a "big box" shopping centre was planned for a 24 hectare (60 acre) site on a flood plain where the Salmon River flows into Shuswap Lake.
Concerned about the effect the proposed development would have on important fish, wildlife and recreational values, a group of citizens, the Committee for a Strong Sustainable Salmon Arm (CASSSA), contacted the David Suzuki Foundation to ask for help.
We didn't have the capacity to get deeply involved, but our staff advised the committee to rally local forces to help them. We also suggested they invite the developer to meet with members of the local watershed planning committee, stream stewards and other interested stakeholders to learn more about the long-term vision for the area. We recommended that they propose alternative sites rather than taking a "no development at all" approach, and we suggested they connect with some of the planned anchor tenants, such as Wal-Mart, to advise them that their public image as "green" businesses could be jeopardized if they aligned with the developer on this project.
CASSSA took this advice to heart and in April 2009, after four long nights of impassioned hearings, Salmon Arm Council denied the initial application from the developer.
In early 2009, CASSSA told us they had joined forces with another community-based group, WA:TER — 'Wetland Alliance: The Ecological Response' and that the two groups were using their own and outside scientific expertise to continue to lobby municipal, provincial and federal authorities for significant changes to the proposal or, failing that, outright rejection. Soon after this alliance was established, WA:TER took over the effort, and continues in the lead role.
Later in 2009, the developer was back seeking council's approval for a revised plan that involved only 15 hectares of land (38 acres). However, that proposal would still have a heavy impact on the floodplain, so citizens geared up for another fight.
And something else had happened since the first campaign. Many more people learned about the issues, and new support emerged. An open house drew 300 people to a church hall, where WA:TER offered scientific data on the vulnerability of the site, its ecological value and the threats the development posed; one of three First Nations in the area, which holds land adjacent to the site on the west side of the Salmon River, came out in opposition to the proposal and pledged cooperative action against the development; some of the town's major business owners and developers also came together to oppose the centre; and, a new blog, "Aim High Salmon Arm", was launched to provide a forum for thoughtful discussion on the proposed shopping centre amongst many other issues facing the community.
In the meantime, the David Suzuki Foundation sent a letter to two key tenants for the planned development, Wal-Mart and Home Depot on behalf of WA:TER and CASSSA, asking the CEOs of these companies to honour their public commitment to help build sustainable communities and try to influence the outcome in a positive way.
Eventually, in part due to the compelling scientific evidence assembled by WA:TER that showed most of the proposed site still encompassed important fish and wetland habitats, the project was scaled down even further to around nine hectares (22 acres), with a promise from the developer to leave a major part of the site untouched, including a large stand of mature trees and extensive riparian (streamside) habitat.
To this day, the project has still not received final approval. Concerns over the gap in knowledge about the river and delta hydrology and the implications of development on possible flooding have caused further delay.
Regardless of the final outcome, this four-year battle is already a victory for local citizens who banded together to ensure that development within their community is both sustainable and environmentally responsible. Click here for more information on this great success story.
All this goes to show how important it is for citizens to become engaged if they want to see special areas protected or ensure development in their communities reflects the will of the people who live there.