Dunderdale administration – worst protected areas record in Canada

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Since they were elected in 2003, the provincial Progressive Conservatives have not fully established a single protected area. Not one. Before Liberal supporters rush to condemn, the records of their administrations is almost as bad – some may argue it was worse, since they got rid of 56 protected areas in the 1990s. Before I explore this issue in more detail, we need a little background.

The accepted definition of ‘protected area’

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines a protected area as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” As with any technical definition, each phrase is important. For this column, the most important part of the definition is, “to achieve the long term conservation of nature”. This means that the area in question must be put aside to protect nature – that the protection of nature is not a secondary by-product.

Here’s an example: The Department of National Defence manages large tracts of land across the country for training. Portions of these areas are rarely utilized and are in relatively good condition. Thus, some areas may have been “protected” from roads and other developments for many decades. However, this doesn’t mean they are protected areas. Since they were not established to achieve the conservation of nature, the land managers in DND could design an exercise which would result in damage to that portion of their property (and, within limits, they must be able to do this). Yet, if they were to protect a portion of their property under an agreement or a piece of legislation, then this land could be called a protected area. In fact, this has happened several times. For a case in point, check out the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area.

The reasons for protected areas

I’ve worked in conservation for more than 20 years. For someone like me, the reasons for establishing protected areas seem self-evident. Maybe that’s why I’ve had little success in moving the agenda forward in this province. I can speak of how protected areas are required for us to understand the world we live in, or how the ecosystem services protected in these areas keep us healthy and safe, or any other widely accepted benefits of protected areas. But, instead, I think I’ll appeal to your common sense.

I believe every Newfoundlander and Labradorian, regardless of how urbanized they are, have a special natural place that they fondly remember – a brook where they fished, some barrens where they picked berries, a patch of forest where the trees made you feel small.  And, especially in the last 10 years or so, I imagine many have been saddened to see or hear that their special little area has been developed. In one sense, protected areas are a way for society to say: “We have collectively decided to keep this area as natural as possible.”

Marsh near Beaverton, Notre Dame Bay
Photo by Douglas Ballam.

Anyone who has driven across the province has seen that the landscape changes drastically from coast to coast. We move from the windswept barrens and rocky coastlines of the Avalon to the thickly forested, rolling hills of central Newfoundland to the dramatic plateaux and mountains of the west coast. Ecologists recognize these different areas as distinct “ecological regions”. (Please don’t tune out now. I find whenever you utter the phrase “eco” people’s eyes tend to glaze over.) The Island of Newfoundland has nine distinct ecological regions and Labrador has 10 (although recent work may revise this number). Isn’t it common sense to protect an example of each of these distinct regions?

During the 1990s, every province or state in North America developed plans to accelerate the establishment of protected areas and to ensure that each distinct ecological region was protected. These plans are generally called ‘protected areas strategies’. Most provinces have implemented their strategies and, as of 2011, the average percentage of land protected in each province was 9.3%. NL is supposedly third from the bottom, ahead of New Brunswick and PEI with 4.57% (even if you consider areas that are almost protected, the percentage rises to only 7% or so). But, if you look a little deeper, you’ll realize that NB and PEI have vast portions of the province under private ownership – so when you consider the opportunity to establish protected areas on Crown Land, we are alone in the basement. As for our strategy, well, it’s a tragedy – we haven’t even released one yet for public consultation.

My final appeal to common sense will be to the pocket book. Recently, government trumpeted that the tourism industry was now worth more than $1 billion. This is an extraordinary achievement, and the provincial government deserves some credit. However, what are the main draws to the province – why are people coming here? To quote from the 2004 study, A Special Place, A Special People – The Future of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism: “Prime among these (reasons for coming to NL) are its natural heritage and environment…”. In fact, the top three visited sites in the province (outside St. John’s) are Gros Morne National Park, the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve and Salmonier Nature Park – all natural protected areas. If protected areas can be revenue generators, then why haven’t we fully established a single one in over ten years?

Why we are 20 years behind…

Judging by its record, one could easily think that the Dunderdale administration hates protected areas. Its actions suggest it considers protected areas a liability, not an asset, and that it views protected areas as big, negative “sinks” that lock away land from development and jobs (which mean votes). Astonishingly, the provincial government recently sent Parks Canada packing when they asked to look at establishing a National Marine Conservation Area on the south coast (e.g. a national park which includes the ocean – kind of like Gros Morne, and look how successful that turned out). I remember hearing Premier Dunderdale in a relatively recent interview saying that there was “blood on the cabinet room floor” when they talked about the protected areas strategy.

She went  on to say that someone had laid out all the “proposed protected areas” on overlays and that if these areas were protected there would be nothing left for development or jobs in rural NL. I think they were hoodwinked. Even the Department of Natural Resources recently stated that 81.8% of the Island and 90% of Labrador are open for mineral exploration and claim staking – not exactly a balance by any stretch.

These negative attitudes are championed by groups vigorously opposed to any protected areas. I will let the Mining Industry NL submission to the province’s Mineral Strategy consultations speak for itself: “[I]f it is determined that an area requires full protection from all industrial uses including mineral exploration that a corresponding area of previously protected land be reopened to exploration.”

The determined opposition from Mining Industry NL does not recognize that the world has moved on and that cooperating with the establishment of protected areas is not only a cost of doing business but a benefit to society.

This organization, which purportedly represents the mineral industry interests in NL, is far behind the times. Nearly 20 years ago in 1994, most provinces, territories and industry advocacy groups signed the Whitehorse Mining Initiative Accord. This agreement called for “establishing an ecologically based system of protected areas” – in other words, protecting distinct ecological regions through a strategy or plan (e.g. the one we haven’t even released yet). The determined opposition from Mining Industry NL does not recognize that the world has moved on and that cooperating with the establishment of protected areas is not only a cost of doing business but a benefit to society.

There is another group responsible for the fact that we are a full generation behind most of the western world in protected areas.

You.

If you’ve never publicly talked about protected areas, whether to a politician during election time, by writing letters to the editor, calling open line shows, or by speaking to government officials – then you are part of the reason why the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has not acted. During the last election, a candidate came to my door and, after listening to his lame jokes, I asked him what his stand was on new protected areas. He basically said, “What’s that?” When I told him, he laughed and said no one had ever brought up the issue – and walked away confident that I was in the minority. He was right.

I don’t much care if this sounds holier than thou – if we as a society don’t hold our government officials and elected members accountable – if we don’t make protected areas an issue, who will?

It’s really up to us…

I have three recommendations for the provincial government. First, stop viewing everyone interested in protecting our environment as rabid, crazy “greens”. Second, from the top down, make protected areas one of government’s priorities (as in “maintaining a balance between development and protection”). Third, release the provincial protected areas strategy, hold public consultations and accelerate the establishment of these important areas.

This is not a feel good column. I’m making a call to action. If you decide that protected areas are important for our province, then once – just once – bring it up to an elected official or government. With a record of zero protected areas in the last 10 years, it certainly can’t hurt.

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