Vancouver Sun

McAbee fossil bed not being protected

- STEPHEN HUME

Iwrote last fall about concerns that the provincial­ly approved commercial exploitati­on of the unique McAbee fossil beds near Cache Creek could render the world-class site scientific­ally worthless.

Shortly after my column appeared, I was frostily informed by the provincial government that after 14 years of commercial fossil hunters mining the beds using metal bars, hammers and shovels, the government had finalized plans to survey for damage and to sign a m e m o r a n d u m o f u n d e r s t a n d i n g ( MOU) with leaseholde­rs that would protect the McAbee site. What the caller didn’t mention was that the adjacent provincial­ly approved mineral lease on the McAbee fossil formation was an open pit cat litter quarry.

No, I’m not joking. Cat litter. Oops, that’s “ industrial absorbents” in provincial government New Speak. This would be hilarious were it a skit on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Unfortunat­ely, it is not satire. It is reality in benighted British Columbia.

I was subsequent­ly informed that the cat litter lease had lapsed last year. Did the province snatch it back for scientific research? Nope. I’m told the lease instead went to another private bidder — this one prominentl­y featuring the terms “ drilling and blasting” in its title.

Although McAbee has been known for only a short time, the provincial government says it has already yielded 23 new species of insects and four new species of plants with “ the potential for many, many more to be discovered.”

Actually, says Simon Fraser University paleo-entomologi­st Dr. Bruce Archibald, the number of previously unknown species found there is already in the hundreds.

This really is a site of unsurpasse­d scientific value. The provincial government argues that everything is peachy now it has its MOU with McAbee leaseholde­rs.

But Archibald mercilessl­y shreds the vaunted memorandum in a Feb. 12 letter to Agricultur­e and Lands Minister Ron Cantelon, who responds with the usual backside-covering, buck-passing bureaucrat­ese about further study, potential research reserves, sustainabl­e management, federal jurisdicti­ons, etc.

Archibald warns Cantelon that incorrect scientific judgments have been made by the ministry, resulting in misdirecte­d policy enabling site destructio­n. Yet other scientific judgments have been delegated to the leaseholde­rs who, he says, lack the necessary expertise. For example, Archibald points out that the MOU distinguis­hes between “ significan­t” and “ common” fossils, the idea being that leaseholde­rs can mine and keep all the common fossils they like, but significan­t fossils ( all vertebrate­s except common fish) must be donated to the province.

The real value of the site is not the beautiful individual specimens it yields, Archibald argues, it’s communitie­s of species.

This separation of the fossils into significan­t and common categories represents a stunning failure to understand that the scientific importance of the site is the opportunit­y it presents to study how the fossils relate to one another in space and evolve over time as stratified assemblage­s of fossils.

“ Deciding what insect fossils are important results from false assumption­s,” he wrote in an exasperate­d e-mail responding to my questions

“ In fact, they’re all important. Even the ones not presented for inspection by the claimholde­rs for whatever reason, and the ones that are destroyed in the excavation process by those who haven’t the motivation or eye to see and retain obscure specimens.”

British Columbians have a right to demand a management plan that ensures and gives priority to preserving the genuine scientific integrity of the deposits.

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