Shuswap Economy Prequel

Two of the Shuswap’s most renowned summer residents were known in Canada for their contributions to history. Philip and Helen Akrigg published numerous books on British Columbia history, including British Columbia Chronicles and a number of editions of British Columbia Place Names. And as self-publishing pioneers, they were the first recipients of B.C.’s Heritage Award. I was fortunate to work with them when I co-edited the first few editions of the Shuswap Chronicles. And they were solid supporters for Shuswap environmental causes.

Helen’s father was E.C. Manning, a provincial chief forester, after whom Manning Park is named. She and Philip owned a cottage in Celista and so for her 1964 University of British Columbia masters thesis she chose to research the history of settlement and economic development in the Shuswap Lake region rather than the entire watershed. As this thesis delved into the reasons why our region lagged in economic development it serves as an excellent prequel to the issues we face now.

Her thesis provides insight into the lives of the early settlers and the development of agriculture and forestry, along with keen observations about our region’s geography. One of the difficulties she faced with her research was the lack of available data, despite the many government documents she reviewed. To make up for the missing information, she interviewed a number of old-timers who lived around the lake and some key civil servants in relevant government ministries.

The thesis came to some rather remarkable conclusions regarding what it identified to be the Shuswap’s most important industry, forestry. In the late 1800s, most of the timber cut was transported on the water to mills in Kamloops, from as far away as the Seymour and Anstey Arms of Shuswap Lake. In the early 1900s, American lumber companies, who had been forced out of the Midwest after these states were denuded of timber, built large mills in the Shuswap.

Fires were a constant problem then too, due to the frequent lightning strikes, carelessness along the CPR right-of-way, and burning by settlers. Once the easily accessed, good quality timber was logged, the emphasis switched from sawmilling to poles and railroad ties.

During World War Two and the years following, demand for lumber resulted in a profusion of small mills throughout the region. When new, sustained-yield provincial policies were developed; the result was domination by a few large companies. Although this dominance by increasingly mechanized and efficient large mills provided steady employment for some, it resulted in economic hardship for many of the small operators in the outlying communities.  She concluded that the forest industry would never be able to provide enough economic activity for significant growth because of the declining quality and quantity of available timber, due to fires, diseases and many years of high-grading.

The thesis was equally pessimistic about this region’s agricultural potential. She determined that despite the excellent farmland in the Salmon River and South Thompson River valleys, there was not enough good, fertile land to encourage the kind of agricultural economic growth seen in the Okanagan or the Fraser Valley. As well, another limiting factor was the distance to markets for local produce.

The third major limiting factor for economic growth in her thesis is the lack of mineralization. The Shuswap has never hosted a large-scale mine and most of the gold was panned out of the creeks in the late 1800s. There was some limited gold, silver, lead and zinc mining in the Adams Plateau and at two, now long closed open pit mines, near Johnson Lake. An underground lead, zinc mine is in the developmental phase northeast of Adams, but even if this mine went into production, it would provide a boost to the North Thompson region and not the Shuswap.

The thesis concludes that our region’s lack of significant natural resources was the major limiting factor for economic growth. Although for the fifty years after she wrote the thesis, forestry did provide many jobs and spin-off industries, it is now likely permanently in the economic dustbin due to lack of demand, the loss of jobs to increasing mechanization, and a declining amount of quality timber. Interestingly, the thesis determined that the only option for growth is what the focus is on today, “…capitalizing on one of the area’s prime assets – its lovely scenery, good climate hundreds of miles of lakeshore – assets which (with a little care) are indestructible and which will continue in the decades ahead to attract people.” And from what we now know only too well, these assets will take much more than “a little care” to ensure their protection.

Post Commentary:

Akrigg’s thesis, written in 1964, is too dated to delve into the reasons why Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George grew substantially, while Salmon Arm remained a small town. Resources certainly helped Kamloops and Prince George grow, including mining, pulp mills and sawmills. Plus, both are transportation centres. Kelowna grew quickly as retirees flocked there for the warmer climate, the lake and the golf courses. Plus Kelowna has more flat land suitable for development. The greatest growth in the Shuswap occurred in Blind Bay, which mushroomed from farms and resorts with major housing developments focused on retirees who enjoy golf.

While Salmon Arm has lagged in development, when compared to the major southern interior population centres, it is precisely its smallness that really adds to its charm and appeal. Rapid growth brings the kind of problems not encountered until recently in the Shuswap. Free from the kind of sprawl that makes Kelowna so ugly, Salmon Arm had until recently been able to be proud of its quality of life. But now that the dumb “Smart Centre is approved, this big box sprawl on a sensitive floodplain poses threats to the very values that have made this community so unique.

With so many boomers nearing retirement in Alberta and the Lower Mainland and with the Okanagan already over crowded, the Shuswap is poised to experience high rates of growth once the economy improves. But only if we work hard to protect the qualities that have attracted us here in the first place, as Akrigg concluded so many years ago. [If I can find a better copy of her thesis, I will have it scanned and made available for downloading at www.shuswapwatershed.ca]

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