26 July 2009

Tourism industry association caves on Gros Morne hydro towers

The province’s hospitality industry now supports the provincial government’s plans for Gros Morne national park, expressing their belief that a “balance” can be found in the government’s plan to sling hydro lines along 120-foot-high steel towers along the most visible, public portions of the park.

There’s a story in the Western Star from last week.

Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador – the province’s tourism industry association -  issued an unprompted and undated statement  in early July that said:

…By being an active participant in this process and working with stakeholders to find the best solution, HNL is optimistic that a balance will be found. As business owners, the tourism industry understands the need to be financially prudent in making long term economic decisions and is confident that the long term economic and social impact of Gros Morne to the province is being considered during this process.

That statement appeared around the same time the Gros Morne story reared its head again publicly.  It came about a month after the provincial government created a new provincial tourism board.  The membership includes a bevy of current and former HNL heavyweights including HNL president Bruce Sparkes.

The language in the statement – especially the bit about being “financially prudent”  - matches perfectly the line taken by the Premier that he was prepared to sacrifice Gros Morne’s UNESCO status because the costs of going around the park might possibly, theoretically, be too high.  Financial prudence dictated the shortest route, especially if that extra money could be spent on health care instead.  Never mind that the province’s energy corporation would be building the lines with borrowed cash not money from the provincial treasury.

The Premier estimated the cost of going around the park at $100 million.  The provincial government currently has cash assets on hand of upwards of $1.8 billion.

By the time HNL issued its new position, the “long term economic and social impact” had already been considered of course, and promptly dismissed by the provincial government.

As the Western Star noted, the new HNL language is also radically different from the statement HNL made in February when the towers controversy first appeared.  Back then, there was an unequivocal statement that the towers were the wrong way to go:

"Running towers in front of dynamic and dramatic landscape is going to take away from the natural beauty of it," [HNL president Bruce] Sparkes said. [CBC story]

"From a photographic, awe-inspiring point of view, it's going to take away that. And who wouldn't say, 'Gee, too bad they put that pole line there?'"

What hasn’t changed in the government position, as expressed by the Premier:

“When park officials look at what the trade-off happens to be for the benefits we get at the end of day ... I think they will see the benefit,” he said.

Seems like that happened, but not to the park people. Who knows?  Maybe the HNL rethink was aided by a few phone calls and e-mails.

What makes the HNL about-face even more spectacular  something your humble e-scribbler noted back in early July when the erection story heated up again:  “the surest way to put an end to any news story about the threat to Gros Morne  from the potentially unnecessary infeed from the Lower Churchill – if that even gets built – is to have the tourism people state publicly that having Gros Morne festooned with steel girders and power lines  is just a lot of fuss about nothing at all.”

The tourism people have spoken.