Reinstating Wilderness Council does not equal conservation action

Council should never have languished in limbo in the first place

I enjoy teaching youth. As any teacher will tell you, there is a unique pleasure in seeing a student suddenly understand your message. Despite years of army training (or maybe because of it), I subscribe to the positive reinforcement approach – always have something positive to say. For example, if a music student plays a song well, praise their performance. If the student doesn’t play very well, praise how they hold their musical instrument. If they’re holding it wrong, praise their posture. If they’re not sitting up straight, praise the fact that they were committed enough to show up. The point is not to give false praise, but to encourage them.

After my last column was published on May 27, I was compelled to add a post-script because government finally re-established the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council by appointing new members. Yet, I cannot bring myself to praise the provincial government. Without going into too much detail, the council (whose existence is required by law), became inactive sometime around 2010 because government would not appoint any members. Without an active council, government had a handy and convenient excuse to avoid establishing any new wilderness or ecological reserves (the council must sign off on certain steps of the establishment process). This is one of the reasons why the current administration has the poorest protected areas records in the country and, indeed, the Western World.

But their dismal record is not the reason why I refuse to praise government for reinstating council. How can I give credit for something that should never have happened in the first place? To put it another way, rewarding government for following their own legislation is like praising a healthy person for getting out of bed. Now, if the laggardly fellow in my metaphor had gone on to shingle the roof and paint the house, why, I would be effusive in my praise.

And that’s what’s missing here – real, concrete conservation action on the ground.

The job nobody wants

There are several reasons for the moribund state of protected areas establishment in this province. One which I haven’t covered in this column is the revolving door in the minister’s office. On average, a Minister of Environment and Conservation lasts about one year. Here’s a list of environment ministers that I compiled by combing through departmental annual reports since the 2007 election:

Charlene Johnson, 2007
Clyde Jackman, 2008-2009
Charlene Johnson, 2009-2011
Ross Wiseman, 2011
Terry French, 2011-2012
Tom Hedderson, 2012-2013
Joan Shea, 2013-2014
Terry French, 2014-present

The fact of the matter is that the Department of Environment and Conservation is what’s called a “junior portfolio”. In other words, a job no ambitious politician wants. Instead, the minister’s office is where (a) you put a new cabinet minister to gain experience or (b) you demote someone. Take Joan Shea as an example. It’s been clear for some time that her heart is no longer in the game. So, where does the premier appoint her to cruise out her last political days? The Department of Environment and Conservation. Here’s another more concrete example of the negative effect of a revolving minister’s office door.

About a year ago, in June 2013, then-minister Tom Hedderson stated that “the reinstatement of the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council (WERAC) is one of [the] department’s priorities.” Not long after, he was appointed to another portfolio and Joan Shea was appointed minister. Legitimate or not, Ms. Shea had the excuse that she had to bring herself up to speed on the many complex files the department handles and, as a result, the council was not re-appointed until a year later. Arguably, at least in theory, if Mr. Hedderson had remained minister he could have acted on his commitment and reinstated the council much earlier.

Some suggestions for concrete action

If musical chair ministers were the only problem we faced, then things might not be so bad. But the truth is that over the past 10 years the total amount of land fully protected under the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act amounts to an area not much larger than a mall parking lot. Real, on-the-ground conservation under this legislation has effectively ceased (prompting me to call for a performance audit of the program). In order to revive the agenda, here are my suggestions for some real conservation action.

Suggestion 1: Establish the Little Grand Lake Ecological Reserve

My son Andrew is 14 years old: a fine, strapping young man growing into early adulthood. A year before he was born, in 1999, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced that some of the best remaining habitat for the threatened Newfoundland Pine Marten was under interim protection as a Provisional Reserve. This step in the establishment process allowed for the all-important public consultations which, according to law, should take 120 days. Fast forward to 2008 and an unapologetic Minister Johnson states that consultations are still on-going and they hope to resolve the issue in the near future. Despite how time sometimes seems to be speeding up for me, I don’t think anyone would say that six years is the “near future”. That’s right – much of the last, remaining habitat for the marten is still only under interim protection in 2014. After 15 years, the delay in fully protecting this habitat as a full ecological reserve is inexcusable. Get it done.

Suggestion 2: Prepare the NL public for the release of a province-wide protected areas plan

Regular readers know that I’ve called for the release of the protected areas plan many, many times. And, don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely necessary that we do this soon – we’re 20 years behind. However, I’m now beginning to think that simply tossing the plan out there for public comment is a recipe for failure. This plan will affect between 10-15 per cent of the land base of the province and, like any important decision, the debate needs to be informed and considered. This type of discussion might be impossible because, as a society, we haven’t had an open debate about the plan or new protected areas for nearly a human generation. The announcement of a fully protected Little Grand Lake Ecological Reserve could also be used to spring board the upcoming release of the protected areas plan. Ads and commercials could be used to prepare the public consciousness for the upcoming, important debate (“Concerned about the conservation of nature? Have your say in the upcoming Natural Area System Plan consultations this Fall!”)

Suggestion 3: Release the plan and hold consultations

As for how the plan should be rolled out and consultations held, there are many examples to draw from – every other jurisdiction did it 20 years ago. Review the consultation processes that every other province or state held decades ago and pick one that worked. Don’t worry about offending anyone by copying their process – everyone else has long moved past this elementary action.

Suggestion 4: Implement the plan

Important as the public consultations are, they still do not equate to on-the-ground conservation action. That only occurs (some say begins) when an area is fully established as a Wilderness or Ecological Reserve. To truly count, the plan must be implemented. This is a monumental task and one which will take years.

We will face a provincial election within a year or so. No government that I’m aware of was ever elected on the conservation ticket. So, what are the chances that this administration will change its stripes and establish reserves in its last year? Slim to none – but then stranger things have happened in an election year. If I were a policy advisor for the PCs, I would suggest they follow suggestions 1 and 2 – Little Grand Lake should be an easy one since it has been under interim protection for 15 years, and announcing consultations on a protected areas plan is pretty safe. I follow this with one final piece of advice for the provincial government.

Now that you’re out of bed, get to work. Until you do, I will continue to withhold my praise.

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