The Truck Stops Here
Thursday, June 8, 2006
When the Smithsonian Folklife Festival opens later this month, an eye-catching prop will occupy a piece of the Mall dedicated to the culture of Alberta, Canada: a monster truck.
Due to arrive shortly is an 18-foot-tall, off-road dump truck that boasts 10-foot-high tires. It is one of the symbols of industry in Alberta -- and some environmentalists are objecting to what they fear will be an unbalanced discussion of oil mining in the province.
In conversations with Folklife officials and in a letter to be released today, the Natural Resources Defense Council has implied that the exhibit endorses this method of oil extraction. "Our main objections about the tar sands oil development is the disastrous environmental impact it has on the natural life in the boreal forest and on the indigenous people," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of Canada projects for the Washington-based council. "This is Canada's single largest contribution to global warming."
Alberta is one focus of the festival, which begins June 30, and its energy programs are one of 16 aspects of life in the western territory that will be featured on the Mall. This year's other featured subjects will be Native American basketry and the Latin music of Chicago.
Festival director Diana Parker said the Smithsonian worked with Albertan scholars, government officials and ordinary citizens to come up with a broad look at the territory, which is said to hold the largest petroleum deposit outside the Arabian peninsula.
"There is a good mix of traditional culture, as well as contemporary stuff," Parker said. "We have a good mix of naturalists, people who are dependent on the natural environment in different ways, as well as workers from the oil industry."
The dispute was first reported in yesterday's Globe and Mail.
Casey-Lefkowitz said she feared the 40-year-old festival would take on the air of a trade show, not the education and entertainment experience that millions come for each year. She requested that the festival provide a counterpoint from environmentalists, scientists and indigenous leaders.
"This is not an industry-sponsored exhibition," said Nancy Groce, curator of the Alberta presentations.
The festival brings people from different occupations to practice their trades and crafts in the sweltering Washington heat. It has often included a signature vehicle, such as a subway car from New York and a painted bus from Pakistan. In the past, the festival has also had presentations about the oil industry in Oklahoma, Texas and Scotland.
"It would be disingenuous to do Alberta and not talk about energy business," Groce said. Almost 150 Albertans will participate in the festival, including cooks, ice sportsmen, dancers and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Among the oil workers who will be on hand are two women who drive the huge trucks, a repairman, two environmentalists who work for the oil companies and two who are independent.
"The truck is a prop, and we don't want the truck to overshadow the message of a broad Alberta culture," Groce said. "These women drive the truck in 40 degrees below zero."
The Smithsonian is not getting a field truck from Alberta but is borrowing a similar vehicle from Caterpillar.
The tar sands lie beneath a forest of pine, spruce and aspen trees, wetlands and lakes that are home to grizzly bears, caribou and whooping cranes. The region covers 48 percent of Alberta. Underneath are sands containing bitumen, a substance that can be converted to oil.
"We are not handing out materials for any side," festival director Parker said. "The festival is not taking a position."
Murray Smith, the Alberta representative at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, did not return calls about the controversy. The festival received $1.2 million from Alberta that was matched by the Smithsonian -- an arrangement that is customary with participating regions.