Top 10 conservation actions N.L. must take

A farewell challenge: What this province needs to do to make things right.

On May 19, David Letterman gave his final Top 10 list on The Late Show.

The list, read by comedy stars who were frequent guests, was especially funny. Under the category “Things I’ve always wanted to say to Dave”, Tina Fey said: “Thanks for finally proving men can be funny.”

For this column (a special one for me), I decided to create a Top 10 list of conservation actions that must be taken to ensure Newfoundland and Labrador has a sustainable future. But first I’d like to report on a very important event held recently.

A week before Letterman’s final show, a one-day forum on protected areas was held in St. John’s. The event was organized by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Nature NL, two local conservation groups largely run by volunteers. The day was very well attended, with 47 people. After participants were welcomed, the first speaker was the Minister of Environment and Conservation, the Honourable Dan Crummell.

Minister Crummell announced the establishment of a new ecological reserve, the first in the province in over two years and only the second fully established in over 10 years. In and of itself, however, the new Lawn Bay Ecological Reserve is a very positive step and one that should be celebrated. The reserve protects the only known nesting colony of Manx Shearwater in North America, as well as other seabirds.

On other conservation issues, however, the minister was less forthcoming.

With regards to the Mealy Mountains National Park, he stated that government is consulting with Aboriginal groups in Labrador. This is strikingly similar to an announcement made 14 years ago in 2001. Similar to that one, Crummell pledged to hold consultations on the proposed Eagle River Waterway Park adjacent to the Mealys, but did not commit to any timeframes.

No word was given on fully establishing the Little Grand Lake Ecological Reserve (or other outstanding protected areas), nor was there any commitment to release the decades-late protected areas strategy.

The minister was followed by Alison Woodley, CPAWS Conservation Director for Parks.

 Around the world, countries have protected an amazing 15.4 per cent of Earth’s landmass. In our province, we’ve only protected 4.6 per cent.

Woodley gave a well prepared presentation that tempered the announcement of the new reserve with protected area statistics from across the country and the world. Although generally positive, Ms. Woodley presented information that, if anything, made me think that our province is even further behind in establishing protected areas than I previously thought.

Around the world, countries have protected an amazing 15.4 per cent of Earth’s landmass. In our province, we’ve only protected 4.6 per cent.

In 2012, most of the world’s countries agreed to increase this protection to 17 per cent by 2020. In Newfoundland and Labrador, we do not even have a publically-stated target.

Across Canada, every province has long since released their protected areas plans, which include lists of new candidates for protected areas and timetables for establishment. Our province has yet to release such a plan.

Next on the agenda was myself, and I think you can readily imagine the tone and content of my presentation.

Finally, the morning ended with a good but content-light presentation by Parks and Natural Areas Division staff.

After lunch, the afternoon got interesting with two discussion panels. One was on terrestrial conservation issues and the other was on marine.

(By the way, my expertise is largely with terrestrial protected areas but, trust me, the situation is far more dire for marine protected areas.)

Anyway, after a couple hours of excellent discussion, the day wrapped up with the entire group contributing to a list of action items to address these deficiencies. Overall, the response from participants was quite positive. The volunteers and limited staff now have the difficult job of producing the proceedings of the workshop and, more importantly, a plan to pool conservation group resources to ensure that the action items are addressed.

Which brings me to my own conservation Top 10 list.

This is a special column for me because, at least for the foreseeable future, it is my final column with The Independent. After about two and a half years and thousands of words, I’ve taken on other volunteer activities and it’s time for me to give them appropriate attention. This Top 10 list includes many issues and topics that I’ve written about, and I’ve provided links to some of these earlier columns.

Top 10 Conservation Actions N.L. must take to ensure a sustainable future

10. Release the natural areas plan/protected areas strategy. We’re more than 20 years behind the rest of Canada and most of the world. The time for talk has passed.

9. Fully establish the Little Grand Lake Ecological Reserve. Originally announced in 1999, this protected area only has interim protection. It is essential to the protection of the endangered Newfoundland Pine Marten. Again, time to walk the walk.

8. Keep establishing protected areas while working on the “big ticket items” like the protected areas strategy or Mealy Mountains National Park. All too often, government makes the excuse that they are not establishing any new protected areas because they are busy working on these large projects. Hogwash. Thirty years ago, while working on large projects like the Bay Du Nord Wilderness Reserve or Torngat Mountains National Park, government still managed to establish about one reserve a year. For the past ten years, we’ve established two.

7. Accelerate the establishment of the Eagle River Waterway Park. This park is an essential component of the protection of Labrador biodiversity. As we saw with the minister’s update, little concrete action has been taken.

6. Protect the habitat for endangered species. As the Newfoundland Pine Marten have Little Grand Lake, so most species at risk have critical habitat that requires some sort of protection. Don’t avoid protecting this critical habitat because of an ideological opposition to protected areas.

5. Reinstate a new, improved park and reserve interpretation program. One of the worst decisions of Budget 2013, the entire interpretation program for our protected areas was eliminated. This program connected tens of thousands of us with nature in an era when we are becoming increasingly disconnected with our natural environment. In the case of Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve, these staff (who only worked for 8-10 weeks a year) were essential to guiding visitors so that they did not trample rare and endangered plant species. Consider partnering with environmental groups and business, if necessary.

4. Reinstate on-site managers for our ecological reserves. Another Budget 2013 casualty, the on-site manager positions for Cape St. Mary’s and the Witless Bay Ecological Reserves were eliminated. Our province is one of the seabird colony capitals of the world. With over 300 colonies around the Island alone, we have inherited a globally important resource. I think this abundance makes us take our seabird colonies for granted. These managers are not just “gravy”, as one environment minister put it—they are essential to the effective management of these astonishing treasures.

3. Remove the petroleum from sunken ore carrier, the Manolis L. Although I focus mostly on terrestrial issues, this one is just too important not to put on the list. With 500 tons of petroleum directly in the path of some of our most important seabird colonies, this is simply a catastrophic ecological disaster waiting to happen.

2. Empower the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council, as well as conservation groups. Abandoned over the past four to five years, the advisory council is a powerful tool that, when used properly, can make things happen in government. Indeed, unlike most “advisory councils”, this one is actually rooted in legislation. For instance, the law says that the council reports directly to the Provincial Cabinet. This line of communication should be re-established. And, government should stop viewing conservation groups as the enemy. Partnerships only serve the greater good.

And, Number 1: Find your own conservation voice and use it. We have the power to change this dismal situation with federal and provincial elections this fall. As I’ve written here before, conservation of our environment does not have to be your top election issue but, if you care, it should be one of them. One voice might be considered a kook. A hundred voices are a fringe element. But a thousand voices, in our province, is a constituency and can change the outcome of an election.

This fall, remember your voice. And, if you are so inclined, remember this column kindly. I will certainly remember all the kind words and the opportunity to voice my concerns regarding our wonderful, smiling land.

Editor’s Note: This list was made prior to news of the oil leaking into the ocean on the Port au Port Peninsula. It’s safe to say that environmental disaster needs remediation A.S.A.P. Click here to read Justin Brake’s feature article on what the oil leaks mean for N.L. and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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