06/02/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 08/01/2014 05:59 EDT

National Conservation Plan Ignores National Parks, Wilderness

Some scientists and environmental groups are coming down hard on the federal government’s first ever National Conservation Plan, claiming that it will neglect most of Canada, given its focus on agricultural and built-up areas near urban centres.

The new plan, released earlier this month by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, promises to conserve Canada’s lands and waters, restore Canada’s ecosystems and connect Canadians to nature.

It proposes $252 million of funding for conservation initiatives over the next five years, including a $100-million commitment over that period to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, a private organization that protects ecologically sensitive areas by purchasing them or having them donated.

Other commitments include $50 million to restore wetlands and $37 million to strengthen marine and coastal conservation. Another $50 million will “support voluntary actions to restore and conserve species and their habitats.”

In a news release, the government said the plan puts an "emphasis on enabling Canadians to conserve and restore lands and waters in and around their communities."

However, some experts fear that this focus is too narrow, particularly in light of recent budget cuts to Parks Canada and changes to environmental legislation like the Fisheries Act.

For example, all of the funding earmarked to protect sensitive habitats is pledged to the Nature Conservancy, which deals solely in private lands.

Those private lands make up only 10 per cent of the Canadian landscape, and are largely around urban areas in southern Canada.

Private lands only

“A national conservation plan, in our view, would not exclude 90 per cent of the landscape of Canada,” said ÉricHébert-Daly, national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), a non-profit dedicated to wilderness preservation.

Hébert-Daly pointed out that the plan contains no commitment to protect Canada’s vast tracts of Crown land by strengthening the national park system — an omission that he said is "loud by its absence."

CPAWS, the Nature Conservancy, and several other environmental NGOs produced a report earlier this year outlining priorities for Canada’s national conservation plan.

Several of the recommendations showed up in some form in last week’s announcement. Absent, though, was the report's recommended annual contribution of $40 million to complete and protect Canada’s national park system.

Diane Orihel, an ecologist at the University of Alberta, says she thinks “the Conservatives’ aim is to accelerate the pace of resource extraction by removing the barriers to development." She wrote in an email to CBCNews.ca that a plan limiting conservation to "little bubbles of nature around where people live" will do little to impede this agenda.

However, an Environment Canada spokesperson said in an email that "the National Conservation Plan includes a focus on private lands in part because the majority of species at risk and their habitat in Canada occur in southern Canada, where there are predominately private lands."

That view was echoed by John Lounds, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, who said that 70 per cent of Canadian species at risk live in or near densely populated areas. He called the plan an important step forward.  

"We are really pleased," Lounds said. "It's a good contribution of funds for communities across Canada."

The new $100-million commitment to the Nature Conservancy will build on a 2007 federal investment of $185 million under the government’s Natural Areas Conservation Program.

The Nature Conservancy currently protects some of the last remaining habitats of many species threatened by urban development, including the eastern foxsnake in southern Ontario and Vancouver Island's iconic Garry oak. 

Still, Hébert-Daly notes that Canada has committed to conserving 17 per cent of its lands and inland waters by 2020, which he said will be difficult to achieve without more funding for national parks.

“The reality is that you can only do so much private land acquisition,” he said.

'Outsourcing' conservation

Hébert-Daly suspects that the emphasis on private over public lands is due to the fact that private lands are simply easier to acquire.

“When you’re dealing with public land, you’re sitting down with First Nations, you’re dealing with industry, you’re dealing with provinces,” he said. “You have to sit down and talk it through and plan it out.”

At the University of Alberta, Orihel thinks the plan shows the Conservatives are “outsourcing” conservation to private organizations like the Nature Conservancy.

“The government is trying to divest itself of the responsibility and accountability of conserving Canada's environment and biodiversity,” she wrote.

Others are concerned that purchasing land is not a strong enough commitment to conservation, given recent cuts to ecological research and changes to environmental policy.

Parks Canada’s budget was cut by $29 million in 2012, resulting in job losses among park scientists, and a weakening in ecological monitoring programs in parks across the country. This year’s federal budget included a commitment of $391.5 million to the agency over five years, but the money is earmarked for infrastructure projects like highway and bridge repairs.

Meanwhile, the Fisheries Act was altered in 2012 so that only fish caught for commercial, aboriginal or sport fisheries would be protected from industrial development. The replacement of the Navigable Waters Protection Act limited federal protection of inland waterways to 97 of Canada's 32,000 lakes and 62 out of more than 2.25 million rivers. ​

Strong environmental policy is an integral part of any conservation plan, according to Scott Vaughan, president and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development and a former commissioner of environment and sustainable development for the federal government.

“Setting these lands aside is important, but it’s not enough,” he said. “[The plan] is good news, but is it going to make a tangible difference to species at risk?”

Wetland restoration

The plan does propose more than just purchasing private lands, though few details were provided about how and when funding for other initiatives will be allocated. And even the current amounts may not go that far.

Jim Brennan, the director of government affairs for Ducks Unlimited Canada, a private group dedicated to wetland conservation, applauds the $50-million commitment to wetlands, which are among Canada’s most threatened habitats.

“It’s a significant increase over what the government currently spends on wetland restoration,” he says.

Ducks Unlimited will apply for a portion of the funding and hopes to match that amount through donations. Brennan said the group will use the money to restore wetlands along the Great Lakes coastline and in the prairie pothole region — an area of shallow wetlands in the southern Prairie provinces.

But $50 million may not be as much as it sounds. Rebecca Rooney, a wetland ecologist at the University of Waterloo, said research has shown that wetland restoration costs on average $7,600 per hectare, and could cost up to $50,000 per hectare in the heavily affected oil sands region.

“At that cost, $50 million over five years doesn’t go very far,” she said.

Rooney also commented that Ducks Unlimited often has little money to spend on long-term monitoring, which is critical to “inform future restoration decisions.”

It is unclear whether any of the money for wetland restoration will go to research or government programs, or whether it will all be funnelled toward private organizations, like the funding for the Nature Conservancy.

Both Vaughan and Hébert-Daly pointed out that the government's recent announcement is lacking in detail, though Environment Canada is promising that more information about specific initiatives "will be forthcoming soon."

Meanwhile, Orihel believes the timing of the announcement is significant.

“The Conservative government is desperate for pipeline projects such as Northern Gateway and Keystone XL to proceed,” she wrote.

She believes the government is trying to win the so-called social licence for pipelines with an environmental plan that is more public relations than substance.

“This so-called national conservation plan is like applying a little first aid to the tip of a finger while entire limbs are being chopped off elsewhere on the body.”

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