ATHABASCA, Canada — Here in Alberta, the stands of aspens stretch as far as the eye can see, covering an area the size of Great Britain. With such vast boreal forests, with its emerald lakes and with its famously beautiful Canadian Rockies, Alberta is the stuff of tourist-poster fantasies--hardly the sort of place one would equate with environmental degradation.
But over the past few months, Alberta's pristine image has been tarnished. Critics have taken to calling the province an "environmental law-free zone." And Alberta citizens--generally a conservative, pro-development crowd--have accused provincial officials of signing away a good many of those whispering aspen trees to pulp-and-paper interests, without asking first.
The scene in Alberta reflects a number of changes on the Canadian environmental front, a ferment that calls to mind American environmentalism of the 1970s--the era of the renowned snail darter case, in which a tiny fish nearly halted construction of a huge dam.
"I don't think there's any question that there's an Americanization of Canadian environmental law going on," says Barry Rabe, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan who has been comparing regulation in the two countries.
The question for Rabe and other observers, though, is whether such a trend will lead to better protection of the Canadian environment. And differences of opinion on the subject highlight the sharp divergence of Canadian and American attitudes on the role of government in protecting society.
The assertion that America might have anything to teach Canadians about environmentalism would probably get a hoot from the average man on the street in this country. Ever since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under President Ronald Reagan, backed away from bilateral talks on acid rain, Canadians have looked askance at Washington's professed concern for the air and water.
"One of the things Canadians came to think was that we didn't have good laws," says Jean Hennessey, director of the Institute on Canada and the United States at Dartmouth University. In fact, she says, and other environmental analysts agree, America's laws are far stricter.
"During the Reagan Administration, we just didn't enforce them," she explains.
Canada, meanwhile, has long had the luxury of a small population in a big, largely empty territory, and until lately it did not feel compelled to set American-style environmental standards on a federal level.
For all its unspoiled wilderness, its sapphire skies and crystal rivers, Canada has no counterparts to America's laws prohibiting interstate transport of wildlife, protecting whales, eagles and burros, or controlling air and water quality nationwide. Fines slapped on polluters in Canada are generally lower than fines in the United States. And Canadian citizens who feel that they have been injured by industry have a much harder time suing than do their American neighbors.
Canada, on the other hand, tends to give provincial officials great power to negotiate environmental standards with industries, one on one. Lawyers on each side of the border see both good and bad in this.
On the good side, the process is less adversarial, so there is less time and money wasted on courtroom stalling and maneuvering. On the negative side, by giving power to the provinces rather than Ottawa, Canada runs the risk that provincial officials will let their guard down for fear of losing industry.
Now, though, there are the beginnings of change.
In Alberta, the stage was set for an environmental showdown in the mid-1980s, when provincial officials began to see in all those whispering aspens a magnificent way of diversifying the province's oil-reliant, boom-and-bust economy. They invited local and foreign forestry companies in for talks and offered incentives, including hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantees and infrastructure development.
Before long, plans were under way for logging vast expanses of aspens, constructing seven new pulp mills and expanding three existing mills.
In the north-central Alberta town of Athabasca, local officials and business people saw what was coming to the province and lobbied hard for their share. They wanted the tax revenue. And in December, 1988, it seemed that they would be getting their wish: Alberta-Pacific Industries Inc., a subsidiary of a British Columbia concern that is controlled by Mitsubishi Corp. and Honshu Paper Co., elected to build a $1.1-billion pulp mill just outside of town.
"I think it's a godsend," said Duane Evans, an Athabasca real estate agent who sports a baseball cap with the logo "Friends of the Mill."
But as the Alberta-Pacific proposal moved forward, and as approximately $2 billion in other pulp-and-paper investment began to take shape elsewhere across the province, the presumed beneficiaries--taxpaying Albertans--set up a howl of protest.