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Fall round-up

in Featured/The Green Space by

I wrote my first column for this paper about eight months ago, on Feb. 19, 2013. Since then, we’ve covered a boatload of topics including fracking, government cutbacks to parks and wildlife, lack of progress on endangered species management and protected areas establishment. When considering a topic for this week’s column, I thought it would be fun to look back and see if there’s been any progress on these important issues. I made up a little game to move the review along. If there has been any progress on the issue whatsoever, I gave “them” a point. If there has been no progress at all, then I gave myself a point. Eight months is not a long time in the big scheme of things, so I expect there to be little progress. Let’s find out.

Fracking

My first column looked at hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. Rarely have I seen an environmental issue galvanize public opinion. But, contrary to what I said earlier, much has happened since February. At that time, Shoal Point Energy had plans to drill for oil in several areas along the coast of western Newfoundland using the controversial drilling technique called fracking. Although they had yet to submit a proposal to the Provincial Government, the company stated that they wanted to start drilling soon, possibly as early as April. That was a little optimistic, to say the least.

Since then, there have been public meetings on a monthly basis. Experts on both sides have been engaged (and attacked). In a bizarre twist, Shoal Point Energy announced in May that they had received approval to proceed with their fracking plans. Blindsided, the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board was quick to point out that, not only did the company not have any approvals whatsoever, they had yet to submit a proposal. This strange turn of events did little to raise the confidence of the general public. Heedless, the company regularly reiterated their plans to frack along the West Coast until, in July, they (and their partners) announced that they would drill conventional wells in 2013 (although fracking was still on the radar for some unspecified date in the future). On the surface, this reversal appears to be a victory to those opposed to the original fracking plans, but not all are convinced. Some fear that this altered drilling plan is a “Trojan Horse” – basically, an attempt to frack while calling it something else. I certainly agree that concerned citizens must be vigilant and monitor the situation closely.

Meanwhile, the provincial government has been warily watching from the sidelines. Despite calls for an independent committee to review the issue, government’s line has been to say that the environmental regulations already in place should suffice. Few agree. The calls for more research and new, specific regulations have been overwhelming.

I could go on but for the purpose of this column I think I’ll stop there. How to score this one? The company plans to go ahead at some point in the future and government has shown a reluctance to study or design specific regulations. Yet, the original plans to frack this year have been cancelled. I think I’ll call it a draw.

Doug – 0
Them – 0

No new protected areas

My next column looked at the ridiculously poor protected areas record in this province. At that time, I lamented that the provincial government had not fully established any new protected areas in ten years. This was the worst record of any province in Canada, state in the US, or country in the western world. Then, in May 2013, the provincial government finally broke their losing streak and established the Sandy Cove Ecological Reserve. This tiny but important reserve protects the last remaining natural habitat for the endangered Long’s Braya in the world (the plant only grows on the Island). This is laudable, but hardly significant progress. It’s more like a flea’s baby-step. Still, it is progress, so I’ll give Them a point.

Doug – 0
Them – 1

No ecotourism strategy

Protected areas can be great economic generators for rural communities. If done properly, ecotourism can be a long term, stable employer. In my March 19 column, I lamented that the province did not have a strategy to develop our enormous ecotourism potential. Indeed, the province’s tourism literature is deafeningly silent on the issue. Scoring this one is easy. The province has no plans to advance ecotourism.

Doug – 1
Them – 0

Cuts to Wildlife and Parks

I had a strong reaction to the 2013 Budget cuts to Wildlife and Parks. I wrote, and still believe, that these cuts were disproportionately high and the result of ideology rather than careful consideration. Some of the more ill advised cuts included wildlife biologists, reserve managers, wildlife officers and park interpretation staff. Well, I’m pleased to report that the provincial government reversed some of these cuts, most notably wildlife officers and one reserve manager. Hardly a complete reversal, but welcome nonetheless (and indicative of poor planning, in my opinion). Still, I’ll give them a point.

Doug – 0
Them – 1

Provincial government went years without designating any new endangered species

Endangered species conservation should be a no-brainer. When there are plants and animals that are hanging on to existence by a thread, we need to help. Especially when their decline is due to human activities. But, our provincial government neglected to recognize any new endangered species for years, despite recommendations from the committee established to provide them with advice. Happily, they finally bowed to pressure and listed 10 species as at risk in the early fall. It’s a good start, but the backlog is still huge. I’ll still give them a point.

Doug – 0
Them – 1

With no protected areas strategy, the province is 20 years behind

Every province in Canada and state in the US has released a long term plan to establish protected areas – except Newfoundland and Labrador. Without exaggeration, we’re 20 years behind. These plans are vital, not only for the conservation of our ecological systems, but also for industry. These plans give industry some certainty and enable them to plan their operations accordingly. Unfortunately, despite repeated promises, the province has no plans to release the strategy, even for public comment.

Doug – 1
Them – 0

The Municipal Stewardship Program – a real success story

In August, I wrote a glowing review of the Municipal Stewardship Program. This excellent, made-in-Newfoundland approach to conservation is the gift that keeps on giving. It seems like every month a new stewardship agreement is signed – I can hardly keep track. In short, these towns agree to protect a sensitive area within their boundaries from development. While far from perfect, this program is really the only active habitat conservation program in the province. Well done.

Doug – 0
Them – 1

Only province in Canada without a dedicated funding program for conservation

I remember listening with astonishment as a senior bureaucrat in the Department of Environment and Conservation told me, “No, we don’t have a program that you can apply for funding for conservation projects and we have no plans to create one.” I was astonished because every province has such a program – and most of them more than one. They fund these programs through wildlife stamps, license fees and so on. I imagine in the eyes of many in government such a program would amount to funding ‘the enemy’. This is foolish. All this attitude is accomplishing is to slow down conservation.

Doug – 1
Them – 0

Province dismisses opportunity for marine park feasibility study

Finally, we come to my most recent column, which angrily decried the provincial government’s decision to pre-emptively cancel a feasibility study into a marine park on the South Coast (formally called a National Marine Conservation Area). To be clear, Parks Canada was not calling for the establishment of such a park – they were willing to provide 100% of the funding to study the idea. If you needed proof this administration’s ideology doesn’t include protected areas, then you have it.

Doug – 1
Them – 0

The final score

Well, now it’s time to look at our final score. It’s a tie! Four points for me and four points for Them. Despite the silliness of this exercise, I enjoyed looking back over the last eight months. Let’s hope that when I do my next review I get a score of 0 and we see progress on every issue. It’s a game I would thoroughly enjoy losing.

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