Yellowknife is often described as an island of civilization in a sea of forest.
Anyone who has taken a walk around the city outskirts knows this is an apt description. For 400 km north, other than some lakes and rivers, there is nothing but forest. Ditto east and west.
But as residents of Fort McMurray and Slave Lake, Alta. — northern cities likewise surrounded by boreal forest – are acutely aware, what makes a community in the woods special also makes it extremely vulnerable.
In a dry year, such as in 2014 when ash rained down on the city and Highway 3 remained closed for days at a time due to encroaching forest fires, the surrounding wilderness can support high-intensity wildland fires that are virtually unstoppable. The 2014 fire season was the worst ever recorded in the NWT.
Perhaps this explains why city hall appeared a little over-zealous in its attempt to build a fire break behind Parker Park near Finlayson Drive recently. Residents were surprised to find a huge swath of forest had been cleared to buffer the large Frame Lake South neighbourhood from the near endless tract of forest outside of it.
The city’s intentions were honorable. In fact, it’s the municipality’s duty to protect residents and their property from forest fire threats. Unfortunately, few people seemed to be aware of what it was doing and why.
Some people who have grown accustomed to walking their dogs in the area were upset. They said they understood the need for the fire break but wondered why residents weren’t warned beforehand.
And there’s the rub: the distinction between “making information available” and actually communicating it.
Information about the Finlayson clear-cut is, technically, available if one digs. Yellowknifer picked up a shovel and checked. There is a definitive map on the city’s website and two sentences in the city’s July 7 capital update mail-out newsletter; a good summary on page 253 of the 2015 Capital Fund; a concise plan from the territorial government with roles and responsibilities from 2012 – but in this day and age, people really shouldn’t have to dig.
While Yellowknife is vulnerable to forest fires, especially in the Finlayson area of town, and no one wants to see a repeat of the devastation in Fort McMurray or Slave Lake, the city still needs to clearly communicate to the community about its plans.
A city spokesperson said work next summer will be outlined ahead of time — again in the capital update, on the city’s website and on social media.
Residents should realize this is important work and support the city’s efforts to do it but if the city wants to avoid any more clear-cut shock maybe it’s time the city rethink its communication efforts.
Tourism helps diverify the economy
It looks like the territorial economy might be on the upswing.
While the resource sector is getting a boost in the number of mineral claims, the tourism sector is celebrating record-breaking visitor numbers.
Now, it’s important to be clear that it would be difficult to match what the diamond mines contribute to the territory’s economy – Diavik, Gahcho Kue and Ekati rake in a whopping 25 per cent of its GDP.
In comparison, 100,000 travellers pumped $200 million in to the territory’s economy – this number hovers closer to about five per cent of the territory’s GDP. It may be a small number, especially compared to what diamonds pull in but it’s nothing to sneeze at. That’s because a healthy economy can’t rely on one sector to rake in a majority of the wealth – if the NWT could bolster the mining sector, public sector, tourism, construction and manufacturing, it would create a situation where the failure of one sector leaves four others to pick up the slack.
A diverse economy is a healthy economy, and the growth of the tourism sector puts the territory in a much better position if – or when – the volatile resource sector slumps again.