Bridge over troubled waters

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Local activists spent decades twisting the right arms of federal politicians getting approval, five years ago, for a full-time, functioning fish passage through the causeway that connects the communities of Riverview and Moncton across the Petitcodiac River.

Now, it’s time to twist their left ones.

Provincial Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Roger Melanson may be a tad opportunistic (this being an election season, and all) when he asks national party leaders what, if anything, they intend to do about the second phase of the river’s planned restoration – a bridge that will replace a significant chunk of the existing fixed link – but he’s not wrong.

The permanent gate-opening has produced efficacious results that not even the most optimistic of riparian ecologists could have predicted back in 2010: The river is dramatically wider around The Bend; fish species have returned in droves; and the famed tidal bore has never been higher.

As a result, tourists have once again designated the banks of Atlantic Canada’s Big Muddy a choice destination on their calendar of things to do when hanging about southeastern New Brunswick in summertime.

Long-board surfers from California now routinely make the 6,000-kilometre trek, from their sun-bleached bivouacs, to “ride the tide” from the Petitcodiac’s mouth, near Fundy Bay, to the shores of Riverside Park (a 90-minute journey, by some accounts).

One of my sons-in-law – a marine biologist with a masters degree in environmental management, and as avid a surfer as God ever made – had never heard about the river’s “tidal bore, version 2.0” until he saw a lengthy clip on You Tube a couple of years ago.

“Alec,” he told me, “You know, I just have to do that.”

I have no doubt that he will.

All of which points to the obvious truth: When a community heeds, and invests in, the integrity of its natural splendors, the local economic impact can be as substantial as twinning a highway.

According to Parks Canada’s website, nationally protected areas make “a substantial economic contribution to (the country’s) economy. Through the spending of the organization and the visitors to Parks Canada’s National Parks, National Historic Sites and National Marine Conservation Areas, a significant and widespread economic impact is felt throughout the country.

“In 2008/09 Parks Canada’s organizational spending and visitor spending totalled $3.3 billion. Of this amount, visitor spending accounted for $2.7 billion and $587 million was spent by Parks Canada on three program areas. The overall national economic impacts derived from the spending attributed to Parks Canada on the Canadian economy are: Gross Domestic Product, $2,988 million; labour Income, $1,925 million; employment, 41,720 fulltime equivalents; tax revenue, $218 million.”

By my calculation, that’s a four-to-one return on public investment, which renders Parks Canada one of the most successful “businesses” in recent Canadian history.

Why, then, can’t the same logic be applied to the Petticodiac River – surely one of the most deserving heritage sites in this country that has not actually received designation?

It would begin with a bridge over the waterway where the causeway now stands. That edifice, with federal support, would further facilitate the natural flow of the river. Eventually, silt and mud would find their way to the coastal estuary and out into the sea.

Meanwhile, our duly protected riparian banks would become magnets for the environmentally sustainable development of public spaces – especially those that would support and augment a new downtown events centre complex.

In 20 years, or less, we might just well engineer a world-beating river restoration and find, to our astonishment, that we did something right.

Indeed, no arms needed to be twisted.

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