“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

1991. Although in its death throes, the Soviet Union still existed. Dan Quayle was Vice-President. Desk top computers were rare and the internet was unknown to most people. You could smoke at your work desk. Smart phones were still in the realm of Star Trek science fiction. And the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador made their first commitment to establish a system of protected areas. To quote Premier Clyde Wells, “the government will make every effort to complete a system of protected areas by the year 2000.” In the last 22 years, the world has moved on. In many ways, it would be barely recognizable to a 1991 time traveler. Yet, over a full human generation later, that original commitment remains unfulfilled.

In the first part of this two-part series, we saw how the provincial government has stifled endangered species conservation by not following legal timeframes. In this column, we’ll see how protected area efforts in the Province have fallen behind the entire world. I’ll also explore the reasons for this, but first we need a little background. This is a sad tale, but one which must be recorded.

The need for protected areas

To most people, protected areas are established to preserve “something” – an endangered animal, a beautiful mountain, or a fragile wetland. They are areas of natural beauty that provide us with recreational and learning opportunities. While the idea of protecting something “important” is certainly valid, there are other, more far-reaching roles for protected areas. Protected areas are essential as benchmarks. That is, they serve as examples of what should be. When we harvest forests, build dams, roads, etc., we try to do these things in such a way as to minimize the impact on our environment. But, how can we mitigate these impacts without an example to go by? Think about how many times a day you look for examples of how to do something. Protected areas serve this function when it comes to responsibly developing our natural resources.

Even more vital is the need to protect whole, functioning ecosystems to ensure our own survival. In our increasingly urban society it may appear that we are isolated from “the environment”, but we’re not. Just as your house provides shelter, temperature control, water, and so forth – the necessities of life – so does the ecosystem around us. In order to effectively maintain these ecosystems and their functions, humanity has recognized that we need to protect large, intact landscapes in special areas. I imagine these reasons seem self-evident once they are explained, but they are actually the product of many decades of difficult, costly and time consuming research. Protected areas are not the private agenda of a fringe element of our society.

Humanity decides to protect our planet and the world changes

These and other reasons for establishing protected areas were recognized long before the United Nations looked seriously at the issue in the 1980s. The year 1987 saw the publication of the Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future. The Commission was established by an “…urgent call by the General Assembly of the United Nations … to propose long term strategies for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000”. Accepted around the world, the report led directly to the Earth Summit – a major international conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where several important treaties were signed. Never in the 200,000 or so year history of the human species did we collectively gather and agree to protect our planet. It was a remarkable achievement.

By the early 1990s most governments recognized this need to accelerate the establishment of protected areas. In Canada, federal and provincial governments met in Aylmer, Quebec in 1992 and signed the Statement of Commitment to Complete Canada’s Network of Protected Areas. The statement basically said that all governments agreed to complete their protected areas systems by the year 2000. This, too, was a significant achievement. How often do all the provinces and the federal government agree on something?

So the 1990s became the Decade of the Protected Area, or at least in most of Canada. Each province released its plans to meet the year 2000 target and, to varying degrees, they worked diligently to achieve their goals. All of them, that is, except Newfoundland and Labrador.

Newfoundland and Labrador quickly falls behind, then does the exact opposite of the rest of the world

Following Premier Wells’ public commitment in 1991, some early progress was made. In cooperation with the Protected Areas Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, the science necessary to move the agenda forward was compiled and published by 1992. Basically, that’s where things stopped. While other provinces released their plans during the 1990s, we didn’t.

And tragically, we still haven’t.

While other provinces began establishing their protected area systems, we fitfully established a few, and then stopped altogether. Incredibly, when other provinces saw their premiers on television providing updates on their progress, Newfoundland and Labrador actually got rid of 56 protected areas in 1995 and 1997. A future column will address this staggering loss.

Sights like this (in Holyrood Pond Park) could soon be a thing of the past.
Sights like this (in Holyrood Pond Park) could soon be a thing of the past. Photo by Douglas Ballam.

I remember attending a conference of provincial ministers responsible for protected areas, held in St. John’s in 1997, as a bureaucrat. Around the table each minister proudly detailed their latest efforts to meet their protected areas commitments. I can still see the horror on the faces of some of the ministers as Tourism, Culture and Recreation Minister Sandra Kelly blithely announced that Newfoundland and Labrador got rid of another 26 parks. These types of meetings are carefully crafted and the general tone is one of cautious, overly polite discourse. Yet, when Minister Kelly gave her “update”, the Minister from Ontario was compelled to say: “I’d be drawn and quartered if I did that.”

Also attending the meeting was Monte Hummel, then leading the national environmental non-government organization efforts to encourage government to meet their commitments. Furious at the silence from these national groups, I confronted Mr. Hummel in the lobby of the hotel. I asked, “How come you haven’t condemned the Newfoundland Government for getting rid of so many parks?” “Well,” he responded, “they are only privatizing the operations. They are not actually deregulating the parks.” Shaking my held in bewilderment, I told him he had been hoodwinked. He looked sad for a minute, but he never did hold the Newfoundland and Labrador government to account. I have no idea why not.

Anyway, this fun experience was followed by yet more public commitments, but little else. Even during the last two elections, the Progressive Conservatives made a point of committing to release and implement the province’s protected areas strategy. On page 51 of the party’s Blue Book, they state: “We will proceed with the development and implementation of a new Natural Areas System Plan…” On the same page, they state that they will establish “wilderness preserves” where appropriate and in balance with economic development. By the way, whenever you hear a politician speak about “balance” and protected areas, rest assured that it’s bad news for protected areas. I guess this is what current Minister of Finance Jerome Kennedy meant when he said that election platforms are not actual promises. He must have forgotten that we took the drastic step of removing the Canadian flag from our provincial buildings a few years ago over a broken federal election promise.

I could go on and list the other public commitments, but it makes for poor reading. Suffice it to say that, not only have we not met these commitments, we have basically given up on establishing any protected areas at all. As I wrote in an earlier column, we have only fully established a single protected area in the last 10 years. Even Afghanistan has a better record (they established the large Band-e Amir National Park in 2009). Heck, everyone has a better record. How could we have failed so miserably?

Neglect and ignorance can’t account for our failure

Clearly, something or someone is blocking us from moving this agenda forward like the rest of humanity. But who or what? Politicians are an easy target and they do hold much of the blame for not leading us in the right direction. On the other hand, few politicians know anything about this issue (I know from my conversations with them). I could more easily blame them if the lack of progress could be laid at the feet of a particular party, but it can’t. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have had the opportunity to act over the last 22 years, but they didn’t.

Certainly the mining industry has lobbied strongly against protected areas. The main advocacy group for the industry, Mining Industry NL, actually asked government to not establish any more protected areas and, if they did, to get rid of an equal amount of existing protected land (you can download their submission for yourself right here). This puerile and unsophisticated position is contrary to the position taken by most of the industry in Canada (see the Whitehorse Mining Agreement, where governments and industry publicly recognize the need to complete protected areas systems). But, could lobbyists have single-handedly halted any protected areas progress for more than 20 years? Maybe, but I find it hard to believe.

So then, who? Honestly, I don’t know. But, I suspect it’s whoever is providing the politicians with briefs and advice. Whether these people are in the party or working in government, who knows? Clearly, someone is telling our leaders that protected areas are bad – that they will hurt their chances at re-election or something. Whoever it is, I wish they’d grow up, move on or read a book on the subject.

It is simply impossible to achieve sustainable development without the foundation of a system of scientifically-based protected areas. Sure, you can develop all you want. We may not even see the consequences in our lifetimes. But, rest assured, we will see those consequences at some point.

This is the second article in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 1.