A bold idea
British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is both vast and beautiful when viewed on a single map. I wanted to learn more about how our local ALR fits into the larger picture…
Mostly I was interested in learning what changed… and how well we’re doing in terms of protecting agricultural potential.
I imagined this to be straightforward – start with a map from 1975, overlay a current map, and measure the differences. Simple, right?
The problem of baseline data
Alas, I couldn’t find a digital map of the 1975 ALR. A second problem stemmed from Regional District changes over time. There were 27 Regional Districts at the time of ALR designation, and 28 today: Comox-Strathcona was split to become Comox Regional District and Strathcona Regional District in 2008.
That complicates the accounting, even if annual reports were always produced – which they sometimes weren’t. Welcome to the unhappy world of searching government archives in hopes of finding consistently-collected or reported data.
In practice it proved difficult to obtain usable data, particularly concerning the early years of the ALR. Others have experienced similar issues; for example there’s some revealing correspondence provided by the City of Burnaby here.
The problem of changing methods
Initially, ALR boundaries were hand-drawn on paper maps, and the areas of land parcels were measured with tools like “dot grids” or planimeters that I’m sadly old enough to remember using. These provided “reasonably” accurate estimates at the time – but times have changed.
The ALR has now been mapped using modern GIS methods – but for several reasons the new numbers don’t exactly match the old ones. They’re close – but not perfectly so. This adds to the difficulty of monitoring changes, because it’s easy to lose track of a few hectares here and there given changing methods and the sheer size of the ALR.
The problem of scale
Regional ALR parcels vary greatly in size. Having very large, and very small, land areas makes it difficult to see where “we” are on a normal graph. Consider the two graphs at left, which show exactly the same data and exactly the same correlation between “old-school” and newer measurements. They look different – but they’re not.
Plotted on a “normal” scale (A), Powell River disappears into the messy pile of data on the extreme lower left. On a log-transformed scale (B), it’s easier to see that we’re at the low end of the data distribution – and that’s my point.
Powell River started with a tiny ALR in 1975 (141 km²).
Contrast this with regions such as Peace River (14,534 km²), Cariboo (9,251 km²) or Thompson-Nicola (5,687 km²) . Only four districts started with a smaller ALR than we did (Mount Waddington, Central Coast, Sunshine Coast and Alberni-Clayoquot). Scale really matters: ours and the other 4 districts could have lost all our ALR, or doubled it, and we would still be a blip on the provincial tally (46,208 km²).
But to keep it simple – remember that my purpose was to compare what we had in 1975 with what we have left – the answer is that it’s not simple.
Individual ALR parcels increased or shrunk over time. Parcels were added (inclusions) or deleted (exclusions). Permitted “agricultural uses” were re-classified (think golf courses). Regional Districts changed, human populations changed, and reporting procedures changed. And all of these things changed at various times, at various rates, and across various parts of the province.
On a regional basis, a few northern areas showed large increases in ALR. Notable were Bulkley-Nechako (+25%), Mount Waddington (+16%) and Northern Rockies (+7%). Most regions suffered losses, with the largest occurring in Columbia-Shuswap (-19%), Powell River (-31%) and Sunshine Coast (-37%).
On a per capita basis the data were similar, and together these plots present a fairly coherent picture of the 40-year history of the ALR. Regions like Central Coast, Mount Waddington, and Skeena-Queen Charlottes experienced declining populations and substantial ALR inclusions; the result was an increase in per capita ALR since 1975. Most other regions show significant declines.
Using the per capita index, Powell River, with a nearly stable population, sits roughly in the middle, showing a 35% loss. Sunshine Coast, with its exploding human population and high ALR exclusion rate, fared the worst, losing 73% of its per capita ALR.
There are still parts of British Columbia where the ALR is of sufficient size to allow for 5 or even 10 hectares of agricultural land for every man, woman and child. Conversely, most regions do not.
The 2015 Provincial average is 0.96 hectares of ALR per person (4,620,858 ha of ALR divided by 4,625,497 people). But as we’ve seen, the distribution of that land is far from uniform.
In Powell River, we’ve gone from an below-average value of 0.72 ha/person in 1975 to 0.49 ha/person in 2015.
I’m not much of a farmer myself…but when I look at the the data, and the trends in the data, and the absolute necessity to have places to grow food…I just can’t support the further exclusion of ALR lands – for any reason. Can you?
Call it food for thought.
Or thought for food.