Canada Has Three Years to Increase Protected Areas by 60% And, Um, It’s Not Going to Be Easy

Hart River Valley Peel Watershed. Photo by Juri Peepre

In less than three years, Canada has to increase the amount of land and inland waters it protects by 60 per cent to meet a commitment under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

The commitment requires signatories to legally designate 17 per cent as “protected areas.” Those can include national, provincial and territorial parks, as well as Indigenous protected areas, tribal parks and privately protected spaces. But to qualify, the areas must be closed to industrial activity.

It’s not going to be easy.

At last count, Canada protects a mere 10.6 per cent of its land and inland waters. That’s compared to Venezuela (53.9 per cent protected), Brazil (29.5 per cent protected) and Australia (17 per cent protected).

Canada is officially behind every other G7 country on this front.

In the last decade — from 2006 to 2016 — we’ve only protected two per cent of our landbase,” said Alison Ronson, national director of the parks program for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, in an interview with DeSmog Canada. “We just need our government to do more. Often, they make announcements that they’re going to protect an area, but then they don’t put that area into a legal designation.”

With such slow progress, time is running out to act.

Scientific Consensus Suggests Countries Must Protect More Than 50% of Land

Canada signed on to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010.

As with many environmental pledges made under former prime minister Stephen Harper, there were few steps actually taken to meet that target. But Ronson said that “not a lot has happened under the new government,” aside from announcing a new national park in Manitoba and opening the Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve in Newfoundland (which was announced in 2010 under the Conservatives).

However, she did note that the Liberals have kicked off a process to at least get the country to meet its commitments by 2020.

In March 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-president Barack Obama made a joint announcement that included: “Canada and the U.S. re-affirm our national goals of protecting at least 17 per cent of land areas and 10 per cent of marine areas by 2020. We will take concrete steps to achieve and substantially surpass these national goals in the coming years.”

The latter sentence is key. Ronson emphasized that 17 per cent by 2020 is simply an “interim target,” and there’s a growing scientific consensus that countries need to be protecting at least half of their landscapes.

That’s right, half.

The vast 68,000 square kilometer wilderness of the Yukon's Peel watershed is the northern anchor of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. Photo by Juri Peepre via Flickr

Some Protected Areas Allow Industrial Activities

Another major problem is the actual quality of the protection.

The federal Liberals have already demonstrated that they’re willing to make concessions to industry pressures with the potential allowance of oil and gas exploration in the Laurentian Channel, a proposed Marine Protected Area off the coast of Newfoundland. As previously reported by DeSmog Canada, such a capitulation has angered many in the scientific community, with oil and gas activities in the region undermining any other formal protections.

The same applies to protected land bases.

Ronson said that “across the country, we see protected area legislation that’s fairly weak and allows the ministers a lot of discretion to allow activities which should just be de facto absent from a protected area.”

ICYMIIndustry Sways Feds to Allow Offshore Drilling in Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area

For instance, in Alberta, the responsible minister can allow rights-of-way and industrial activity within protected areas on a case-by-case basis.

This situation is complicated further by the role of privately protected spaces, such as those held by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which buys up land and announces it as protected. Ronson noted that often private protection isn’t enough to extinguish some mineral rights, meaning it’s not fully protected from future industrial activities.

Such private lands often protect rare ecosystems like grasslands and Carolinian forests. But she emphasized that “the biggest opportunity in Canada for land protection is on public lands.”

Indigenous Circle of Experts Gathering Perspectives on Process

There’s also huge potential in the process for the expanded acknowledgment of Indigenous sovereignty and stewardship.

To reach “Canada Target 1” of 17 per cent protected areas by 2020, the federal government created three roundtables of sorts. They include the National Steering Committee (including directors of provincial and federal environment and parks departments), the National Advisory Panel (providing recommendations “reflecting a broad spectrum of perspectives”) and the Indigenous Circle of Experts.

Eli Enns, a Nuu-chah-nulth Canadian political scientist and co-chair of the Indigenous Circle of Experts, said in an interview with DeSmog Canada that they’re in the process of completing four regional gatherings to gather perspectives on how to meet Target 1 in the spirit and practice of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

He said the outcome will include a written report and a narrative in the Indigenous oral tradition that won’t be written down but instead be provided in spoken form to the ministers.

In broad terms, the recommendation would be to honour the treaties,” he said. “The so-called historical treaties have not been honoured. But they do have a lot of potential to give us guidance and help us to achieve our biodiversity targets such as Target 1.

As soon as you talk to the elders about Target 1, the kneejerk reaction is to say ‘you’re richer than you think.’ Because built into the treaties themselves are ideas, values and laws of respecting the land and respecting one another. These treaties, which are sometimes referred to as numbered treaties, are actually peace and friendship treaties.”

ICYMI: ‘It’s No Longer About Saying No’: How B.C.’s First Nations Are Taking Charge With Tribal Parks

There have already been a series of protected areas created in collaboration with Indigenous communities, including Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in Haida Gwaii and the proposed Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories (national park reserves specifically allow Indigenous communities to continue traditional land use practices in the region).

Other Indigenous conserved areas, including Dasiquox Tribal Park in Tsilhqot’in territory and K’ih tsaa?dze in Doig River territory, could receive provincial or federal regognition.  

CPAWS Outlined Nine Steps To Help Reach 2020 Target

In its most recent report on protected areas, titled “From Laggard to Leader?CPAWS listed nine “overarching recommendations” for immediate progress.

They include the implementation of existing commitments to protect land and inland waters, planning beyond 2020 to ensure that at least half of Canada’s land base will be rapidly protected, banning the issuing of permits for industrial development in such areas and developing “landscape scale ecological connectivity strategies.”

It also zeroed in on 13 opportunities for “early action on-the-ground” including the Peel River Watershed in the Yukon, the South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Reserve in B.C., the Bighorn Backcountry in Alberta, the Saskatchewan Grasslands and the Three Wild Watersheds in Western Quebec. They’re all places where governments have been working for a long time, often with Indigenous partners.

Source: CPAWS Parks Report 2017

Almost everything that needs to happen for the process is already known. The challenge now is simply implementing such knowledge.

Ronson said she suspects the lack of inaction on the subject has been entirely due to a lack of political will. But that may be slowly changing.

We’re really encouraged that a lot of people are paying attention to parks this year,” she said. “Obviously, a lot of it has to do with the free access to national parks. But we’re hoping that people will realize that parks and protected areas are important not only for protecting species at risk and maintaining biodiversity in our country, but they’re also really important for us: they provide us with clean air and fresh water, and also when people connect with nature they see extremely important physical and mental wellness benefits.

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Image: The Hart River valley, one of the least known watersheds in the Peel region due to challenging access. Photo by Juri Peepre for ProtectPeel.ca via Flickr