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As e-mail chains go, the one making the rounds on the environmental circuit this week came weighted with pedigree.

It was written by individuals who collectively might be called the "elders" of the conservation movement in British Columbia. Among the many contributors were Carmen Purdy, former president of the BC Wildlife Federation, Ray Demarchi, the retired chief of wildlife conservation for the province, and Dave Narver, former director of the B.C. Fisheries Branch.

It was laden with concern, featured some sharp disagreement, and should be mandatory reading for members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet, who believe that people who question them are enemies of the state.

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The key topic under discussion was the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project, and the debate revealed some broad disagreements over the biggest environmental issue facing the province.

Mr. Purdy kicked things off by putting forward a contrary view to the one the BCWF, which represents some 32,000 members in 106 clubs, has presented in its formal submission to the judicial panel investigating the proposed pipeline.

The BCWF opposes the project, saying it puts at "high risk" some of B.C.'s most valuable ecosystems, including the Great Bear Rainforest and Kitlope Conservancy.

But Mr. Purdy said saying no is shortsighted.

"It is essential that the development of natural resources (the extractive industries) and the means to convert the materials into marketable products be developed and built. Only this approach can provide the wealth our nation needs for improving the environment. Poverty is not good for the environment (visit any third world country). Open market economies best provide wealth," he wrote.

"The BCWF should be promoting the placement of a fund similar to the Columbia River Treaty [which helps fund conservation efforts along a river corridor damaged by dams] … I would start with a figure of one billion dollars. This will benefit the people and the environment," stated Mr. Purdy.

"How very wrong you are Carmen!" fired back Jim Cooperman, president of the Shuswap Environmental Action Society. "We will stop the pipeline, as the people of B.C. do not want it. Only the wealthy one per cent would really benefit from the scheme. And the [BCWF]should not be asking for bribes, in the form of a fund."

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Mr. Demarchi, who as a public servant and wildlife biologist was known for his well-researched positions, chipped in with a detailed analysis of the various transportation options available for getting oil-sands bitumen to market.

Shipping through a pipeline to a deep-sea tanker port in Kitimat is just one way to move the resource, he wrote. He noted that the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline to the U.S., the proposed twinning of the Kinder Morgan Transmountain Pipeline to Vancouver, the possible use of CNR tanker cars to Prince Rupert, or existing pipelines to eastern Canada, are all possible solutions.

But he said the most important question to be asked is "why [don't we]have a proper plan for developing our national energy resources?"

Mr. Demarchi also questioned the environment fund proposed by Mr. Purdy, saying a clean-up on B.C.'s rugged, wild west coast would be extremely difficult.

"I was on the Gulf of Texas on April 20, 2011, the day that the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up and the oil started spilling, and went back a year later to view the aftermath … and I don't think a billion would come close to cleaning up a major spill of bitumen, if it ever could be cleaned up!" wrote Mr. Demarchi.

Mr. Narver added, "It is not 'if' there is a marine spill, it is 'when.' "

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At one point in the lively debate John Shepherd interjected a comment that reflected the fear the Conservative government has raised by labelling environmentalists "radicals," and by threatening to pull the tax-deductable status of groups that engage politically.

"Please remove my name from this string, I do not like the direction this is heading. As a director of the BCWF we cannot get political in any way shape or form," wrote Mr. Shepherd.

However, the debate continued without him. It was a stimulating exchange among a group of knowledgeable citizens who care about the environment, care about the economy – and who believe in finding solutions through a free expression of ideas. Too bad the Conservative cabinet wasn't on the mailing list.

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