In Full Retreat: How the provincial government is crushing conservation (Pt. 1)

First in a two-part series on the provincial government’s campaign against the conservation of vulnerable species and natural areas.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I enjoy reading military history. When I think about conservation in Newfoundland and Labrador, I sometimes think in military terms and euphemisms. My first thoughts for the title of this two-part column were something like “The War Against Conservation”, but this didn’t ring true. The word “war” brings to mind a conflict between two nation-states with similar resources: strategic moves of divisions and regiments with each side claiming occasional tactical victories. I’m afraid conservation efforts in this province can’t be viewed that way. At best, there are small pockets of resistance here and there but, overall, the war has been won. Conservation has lost, at least for the foreseeable future.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the first in a two-part column which examines two key aspects of conservation. The first aspect is the protection of species at risk (a catch-all phrase for endangered or threatened species). The second installment will focus on protected areas. Both topics are closely related, but are governed by different laws and agencies. Both enjoy public commitments from the government but, unfortunately, few have been met.

Conservation of species at risk is a global concern

The main commitment to species at risk in Canada is the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk. The Accord grew out of the international treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Convention was signed in 1992 by 150 countries, including Canada. This is often referred to as the Rio de Janeiro agreement (where it was signed) or the Earth Summit. I could list similar agreements, but I think you get the point. Efforts to protect species at risk are not some “enviro-hippie” or bureaucrat’s pet project. They arose from a global and scientific consensus that we are experiencing a rapid loss of species and that humans need to act to minimize this loss. By the way, to view the Convention as an anti-development “agenda” is completely wrong. Instead, the Convention emphasizes the link between the protection of species at risk and our own need for food security, fresh air and water, medicines – in other words, the survival of our own species.

Newfoundland and Labrador, along with all provinces and territories, agreed to act by signing the Accord in 1996. Both Provincial and Federal Governments began drafting laws that would govern the protection of species at risk. Newfoundland and Labrador actually beat the feds to the punch, passing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2001. It wasn’t until a year later that the Government of Canada passed the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Earlier versions of SARA had been reviewed by the Provinces and our provincial government carefully ensured that both pieces of legislation complemented each other and avoided duplication. The Newfoundland and Labrador Endangered Species Act is highly regarded. A 2012 review of species at risk legislation across the country called ESA “…one of the more comprehensive provincial statutes for protecting species at risk.” Although, strangely, the report went on to give ESA a grade of C minus. In any event, the ground was set for this province to effectively protect our most vulnerable species.

We started well, then the bottom fell out of ‘er

Things started off well. In 2002, fully 20 species received protection under the Act. Legislated timelines are one of the strengths of this Act. Plans (sometimes called strategies or management plans) must be written within one year of the species receiving a designation. More importantly, the Provincial Government (specifically Cabinet) must make a decision within 90 days. This is where things started to go off the rails.

The committee that makes recommendations to Cabinet is called the Species Status Advisory Committee. In their 2010-2011 annual report (the last one publicly available), they provide a fascinating appendix. In fact, I’m surprised it is available, given this government’s recent controls on information. Maybe the committee included it at the bottom of the report in the hopes it would be overlooked?

(The Progressive Conservatives) haven’t designated any new endangered, threatened or vulnerable species in the past seven years…they’ve ignored 100% of the committee’s recommendations.

The kicker is that, between 2004 and 2010, the committee made recommendations to Cabinet regarding 23 at risk species. Cabinet has only made a decision on seven of them. Most discouraging. Even worse, the Provincial Progressive Conservatives have not designated any species since 2006. We’re not talking about recommendations on which flower should be the provincial emblem (it’s the Pitcher Plant). We’re talking about last-ditch efforts to save species on the brink. They haven’t designated any new endangered, threatened or vulnerable species in the past seven years. In other words, they’ve ignored 100% of the committee’s recommendations.

Two examples of our species at risk

Take, for instance, the plant Cutleaf Fleabane (known to biologists as Erigeron compositus). This small flower looks like a little daisy with a yellow centre and white petals. There used to be two small natural populations on the Island of Newfoundland. Now there is only one population of 120 adult plants in an area smaller than three residential building lots. One person could eliminate the species from the province in a couple of hours. According to law, Cabinet should have made a public decision by August 29, 2008. Maybe the implications for industry are so severe that they needed the intervening seven and a half years to try and mitigate any impacts.

The endangered Cutleaf Fleabane. Photo by Henry Mann.
The endangered Cutleaf Fleabane. Photo by Henry Mann.

Or, if plants aren’t your thing, how about the Bobolink, or Dolichonyx oryzivorus? This small bird would be indistinguishable from many small songbirds to most folks (including me). It has a yellowish-white neck and breast with darker, barred wings and back. Although it’s been seen in pastures and meadows across the Island, it’s only been known to nest in the verdant Codroy Valley. Since the Island is the most extreme edge of this bird’s range, we are at the “front” of its recovery. It was recommended for protection under the Act in October of 2010, a paltry three and a half years ago. Or, to put it less sarcastically, more than 12 times the legal time limit. It’s not like government can’t move fast on some things when it wants to. After all, the biggest development investment in the province’s history (the hydro-development at Muskrat Falls) received only one day of debate in the House of Assembly.

The tools of war

But this column is not about individual species descriptions or needs. It’s about the big picture. Only the most fervent anti-conservationist would be okay with these long time lapses. Many readers may think, however, that this is a case of benign neglect. That is, government means to get to this at some point but they are hard pressed with other matters. I disagree. Completely. I believe this is a systematic but skillfully hidden attack on the conservation of our most threatened species.

As stated in the Sun Tzu quote at the beginning of this column, the best way to win a war is without any conflict. In other words, you defeat the “enemy” without engaging them head-on. In a real war, this can be done through propaganda or sabotage. Well, these tools work as well in other realms too. Take propaganda – how many times have you heard a Minister crow about how much the government has invested in “the environment”? Or, astonishingly, have encouraged the public to increase their efforts to conserve “the environment”? As an aside, I put “the environment” in quotations because it’s a silly phrase. Using this phrase illustrates one’s detachment from the life support system that keeps us alive. We don’t live in “the environment” – we live in our environment. But back to my point. If you tell people you’re helping protect “the environment” often enough, they will believe you.

An at-risk Bobolink near Cape Race. Photo by Ken Knowles.
An at-risk Bobolink near Cape Race. Photo by Ken Knowles.

The sabotage efforts are easier to see. How could a government deal with pressure from government biologists to make decisions on the status of endangered species? Fire them. As I wrote previously in this column, the Department of Environment and Conservation took the highest percentage of cuts in the 2013 budget. Environmental non-government organizations often step in at this point to hold government accountable to its own legislated standards. In this province, however, both private and public funding of these traditional watchdogs is the lowest in the country. By my count, three environmental groups have had to shut their doors in the past several years. Others seem to have decided that it’s futile to challenge government on these big issues, and instead they focus on smaller, local conservation efforts that have a chance of success. When faced with no success, or some limited, small scale success, which would you choose?

Isolated “pockets of resistance” do exist. A few voices decry these attacks. But these are obviously not enough. Although I am the farthest thing from an “enviro-hippie” you can get, I do have a vision for “peace”. Imagine a province where government, industry and concerned citizens worked together in a positive spirit of cooperation to ensure that we did not lose any ground in the protection of our most vulnerable species. Where we shared the common goal of avoiding the further loss of any native species and, when conflict with industrial development occurred, we worked through these issues in an open, forthright and respectful manner. At the very least, the Provincial Government must follow the law of the land and meet the legislated time frames in the Endangered Species Act.

Doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, does it?

Click here to read Part 2.

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