RESOURCES ARE NOT UNLIMITED
New lands have always invited a get-rich-quick type of exploit. Men seeking fortunes wanted no restraints and no admonishment. Nobody on the frontier admitted limitations in Nature's stores. Using unbridled terms, men were expected to join the popular chorus proclaiming faith in the new country and enduring qualities of resources. Pessimism was unpardonable and even realism was not good enough. Perhaps the thought of unfailing fortune was inspired by individuals with something to sell; perhaps it was inherent in the particular kind of people attracted by frontier challenges. In either case, it was typical of a period in early Canada to see the good things like soil and forests and those other resources known at the time, to be inexhaustible like the widow's undiminishing pot of oil described in the Second Book of Kings.
But time was to show mistakes in the use of superlative terms like "unlimited," "unfailing," "immeasurable" and "inexhaustible," so commonly heard in frontier years. The fact was that certain "unfailing" resources failed and some of the "inexhaustibles" became exhausted. The prairie buffaloes, present in "countless numbers" in I 874, had dwindled and disappeared by 1884. A northern nickel mine, once said to process "fabulous resources of ore," was mined out and being abandoned late in 1962. Fortunately, not many of the depletions were so complete or dramatic but the lessons were scarcely less clear.
In the face 'of expanding industry, it was easy to be carried away by rosy assurances of unfailing abundance. Two hundred and fifty years ago, beavers in the streams of Rupert's Land appeared so numerous and so prolific that it was considered impossible to decimate their numbers by ordinary methods of trapping and slaughter. At least, that was what ambitious hunters and traders wanted to think. Their profits depended upon volume and they were in a hurry. But in a comparatively short time, greedy methods were leading to destruction of the industry and near-destruction of the beaver race.
The streams of Rupert's Land, as the first white men saw them, held unbelievable fortunes in beaver skins. European hat-makers were willing to pay well for the fur and the animals were easy to trap. Beaver skins provided Western Canada's first marketable crop and the rich opportunities attracted Canadian trappers from Montreal and Hudson's Bay Company men from England and Scotland.
It was a bustling industry-while it lasted-but even the prolific beavers could not withstand the trapping pressures. One stream after another was trapped out. As soon as the supply was exhausted in one area, trappers moved on to another. Without thought of consequences, old beavers and young ones alike were slaughtered. It was a case of plunder and push on to plunder elsewhere. Everybody was doing It as though participating in a racing contest. No voice was raised against methods in the early years but by the end of the 18th century, traders were obliged to go far back Into the North to load their canoes and after another 50 years, the beavers-once thought too prolific to suffer decline from man's onslaughts-were nearing extinction. Happily, the disappearance was not complete and, later, under statutory protection, Nature's professionals in dam constructIon made a notable comeback.
"Unlimited" and "undiminishing" were favorite and misleading terms in describing many resources. In 1891, there was "no limit" to the gold to be taken from gravels in the North Saskatchewan River and, in 1908, Canada's forests were "inexhaustible." A speaker in the latter year saw the stands of spruce and pine and fir as able "to hold their own forever against man's cutting." He was sure foresters could cut and move on to fresh stands of trees until Judgment Day -"at least as long as I live."
But in a few years, foresters recognized failing inventories of trees; replacement by natural growth was not keeping Up with depletions due to fires, insects, disease and commercial cutting.
Groundwater supplies in Alberta's Milk River sandstone offered another clear example of misjudgment. It was easy to obtain artesian wells in that southeastern section of the province and the flow led to a 1915 conclusion that "water worries in these parts are now solved forever." No doubt the boastful assurance brought comfort to many dryland fanners and townspeople but, inasmuch as the flow of water into the sandstone reserves was actually slower than the outward movement from the generous wells, the supply was failing and by 1961 the outlook for water appeared quite different and very much less promising. According to a report from the Alberta Research Council in the latter year, "the water in the Milk River sandstone is a non-renewable resource ... which is slowly being depleted.
"It is reasonable to believe," the Research Council report continued, "that without conservation, within five or 10 years, all flowing wells in the area will have stopped flowing. Local heavy withdrawal is expected to create severe water shortages around Foremost, Bow Island and Pakowki Lake area within this century."
The water from these deep wells was not inexhaustible and the situation was almost exactly parallel to one in California's Antelope Valley where wells of 1910 seemed to promise their abundance forever. But by 1920, many artesian wells in the area had ceased to flow and other wells were going dry.
Professor John Macoun who saw the Canadian West in 1872 and 10 years later published his book, Manitoba And The Great North-West, was one of those for whom unrestrained enthusiasm came naturally. Terms like "unlimited" found their way rather often into his estimates of soil resources and crop production. As for the wheat crop of the North-West, said he, "there is actually no limit but the want of a market." "Practically inexhaustible," was the way he described the soil of Carrot River district in today's Province of Saskatchewan.