11/05/2013 10:08 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Audit finds 'wide gap' between federal conservation talk and action

OTTAWA - A massive audit of federal conservation policies paints a picture of mismanagement and neglect when it comes to Canada's natural heritage.

The study by Neil Maxwell, the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, repeatedly points to a lack of strategies, plans and resources required to maintain or improve everything from basic biodiversity and species at risk to the national parks.

"I see a wide gap between the government's commitments and the results achieved," Maxwell says in the preface to the report.

At a news conference, the commissioner was more emphatic.

"The most important thing is they have to demonstrate, given the track record is one of missed commitments — failing to act on past commitments, it's really up to the government to demonstrate they're serious in terms of taking action," Maxwell said.

The commissioner's talk-versus-action concern was graphically illustrated shortly after the audits were tabled Tuesday morning in the House of Commons, when Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq issued a response that ignored the report's clear thrust.

"As an Arctic nation with rich and unique biodiversity truly distinct to the North, Canada continues to strengthen its environmental protection and conservation, leading to healthy ecosystems that will ultimately benefit the economy and support the health of Canadians," Aglukkaq said in a release.

The Conservative government has made a political virtue of creating new national parks and protected wildlife areas, but the audits tabled in Parliament make the government rhetoric ring hollow.

Canada is still working on a basic strategy to meet its 2020 international promises under a United Nations convention on biodiversity, so hasn't even begun to identify what actions need to be taken. Canada was among the world's first signatories to the convention in 1992 under former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

"Without a clear and specific definition of how Environment Canada sees its role and what it wants to achieve as Canada's national focal point, it will be difficult to determine what the department plans to achieve or what resources it will require," the audit says.

The Conservative government has shown little concern that Canada is nowhere near meeting another of its international promises, the 2020 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels.

But the Harper government has put considerable political stock into promoting Canada's national parks and protected areas, and on that front the commissioner's audit may sting.

Management plans for some 12.4 million hectares of designated national wildlife area date on average from 1992, says the audit. It found half a dozen wildlife areas and 22 migratory bird sanctuaries that should have been removed from the list because they no longer meet the criteria.

At Canada's national parks, funding for "heritage resources conservation" — effectively the natural beauty of the parks — decreased by 15 per cent last year compared with the preceding six years, "with further reductions planned as part of decisions flowing from the 2012 federal budget."

Staffing for conservation at national parks has declined 23 per cent and scientific staff positions are down by more than a third, says the report — and that was before the latest round of cuts.

"The adjustments reallocate fewer resources across the agency's various responsibilities for maintaining or restoring ecological integrity; furthermore, the agency provided no quantitative analysis to show that these actions are sufficient to address the resource reductions," says the report.

Fifteen of the 44 national parks lack a state-of-the-park report to use as a baseline for maintaining or restoring ecological integrity. And while new monitoring guidelines have been put in place, not one of nine parks examined by the auditors had a scientifically credible monitoring system.

"To safeguard our treasured national parks we need more attention and resources paid to protecting park ecosystems, not less," Alison Woodley of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said in a release.

NDP environment critic Megan Leslie accused the Conservatives of being "delusional on the environmental file."

Leslie stressed that Maxwell's critiques are based on audits of the government's own targets and achievements.

"These aren't political statements. These aren't policy statements. It's an audit of whether or not the government is achieving the goals it set out for itself."

One bright spot in the report: the commissioner says a North American strategy on protecting waterfowl is working and helps illustrate what can be done if there is political will to preserve and restore the environment.

Sport hunters are an important Conservative constituency, but the audit found conservation plans for other bird species are inadequate.

Maxwell prefaced his report by making the economic case for protection of Canada's "natural heritage."

"The approval processes currently under way for large oil and gas pipelines in North America have shown that widespread acceptance of resource development depends, in part, on due consideration for protecting nature," Maxwell wrote. "Our trading partners see Canada as a steward of globally significant resources.

"Canada's success as a trading partner depends on continued leadership in meeting international expectations for environmental protection, expectations that are increasingly enshrined in international trade agreements."