Liberals tout green credentials, national parks struggle

“The government appears to have “no roadmap” to achieving its target, particularly for the protection of land, said Éric Hébert-Daly, national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.”

“I can understand people’s impression that, as of today, it doesn’t look good,” said Liberal MP Deb Schulte (King-Vaughan, Ont.), who chairs the House Environment Committee, which is currently studying federal protected areas and conservation objectives.

Ms. Schulte acknowledged that the government was not on pace to meet the Aichi targets.


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As it touts itself as one of the world’s environmental champions, the Liberal government is stuck at the helm of national parks and wildlife areas that are struggling to sustain themselves.

Parks Canada has for years failed to hit its own targets for conservation. Audits by Canada’s environment commissioner found the Conservative government’s management of protected ecosystems wanting, and a group of Canada’s most prominent environmental organizations says not enough has changed since the Liberals came to power.

The government has also moved slowly so far towards fulfilling its commitment to honour the Aichi biodiversity target of protecting 17 per cent of Canada’s land and 10 per cent of its oceans by 2020, leading some environmental lobbyists to say they fear the government has no cohesive plan for how it will do so.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) will have to find a way to turn around the management of Canada’s federally administered parks and protected areas system, and speed up the protection of new territory if the government is to maintain its green-friendly credibility, said Stephen Hazell, the conservation director for Nature Canada, a nature conservation charity.

To meet those targets, Ms. McKenna will have to navigate negotiations with provinces and First Nations, already-stretched deficit budgets, and a mandate to waive entrance fees to national parks in 2017.

 

Failure despite ‘significant efforts’

Many of Canada’s biggest conservation groups called on the government to shape up its management of the country’s parks in a joint Oct. 4 press release. The statement expressed concern over the “declining health” of park habitats, the expansion of tourist infrastructure, and commercial attractions within parks, damage from resource projects outside of park borders, and a lack of consultations and environmental assessments for work within parks.

The statement was signed by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the David Suzuki Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, Nature Canada, Greenpeace, the Pembina Institute, and six other organizations.

Audits of Parks Canada and Environment Canada in 2013 found that both had failed to adequately manage the protected ecosystems within their jurisdiction, “despite Parks Canada’s significant efforts,” said Julie Gelfand, the federal commissioner for environment and sustainable development, in testimony to the House Environment Committee in May.

A year into its tenure, the Liberal government hasn’t yet turned around the management of its parks, said Mr. Hazell and Justina Ray, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada.

The Liberals have talked a good game about improving ecological integrity in parks, but have not suspended some of the projects approved under the last government that irk Ms. Ray and many other Canadian environmental advocates, such as a paved bike trail through grizzly and caribou habitat linking Jasper and Banff in Alberta, or a shift in the boundaries of the Lake Louise Ski Resort that will allow it to double the number of skiers on its hills in Banff National Park.

“There’s no real tangible sign that things are going to change,” said Ms. Ray.

However, the Liberals have made a few moves to start digging park management out of the hole it currently occupies.

Ms. McKenna has proposed changing the law creating the new Rouge National Urban Park in the Scarborough area near Toronto to emphasize that maintaining the ecological integrity of the park would be a top priority. The 2016 budget included $42-million for the development of new parks, and more money to cover the costs of making admission to parks free in 2017 as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations, and making park admission free for children beginning in 2018.

The Liberals have also pledged to overhaul the environmental assessment process, raising hopes for Mr. Hazell and other environmental lobbyists that the reformed process will put any new infrastructure or commercial projects in the parks through a more thorough public review.

Funding set aside for ‘backlog’ of work

The federal government oversees several different types of protected habitats through different departments. Parks Canada manages 47 national parks, striving to preserve habitats representative of each of Canada’s ecosystems, while also providing opportunities for public enjoyment and education. On the marine side, Parks Canada manages national marine conservation areas offshore, with similar objectives.

Parks Canada reports to the federal environment minister, who also oversees Environment and Climate Change Canada’s stewardship of 54 national wildlife areas and 92 migratory bird sanctuaries, established solely for the purpose of conservation.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada also manages marine protected areas, established primarily for the purpose of conservation.

Provinces manage their own provincial parks, and private lands can be set aside for conservation, though the latter do not always meet international standards for protected areas.

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Protected areas in Canada, as of the end of 2015. Environment and Climate Change Canada graphic.

Parks Canada in particular has struggled to hit its conservation targets in recent years, reaching 56 per cent of its ecological integrity goal for national park conservation in 2014-2015, the last year for which a departmental performance report is available. The agency’s goal had been 80 per cent.

The report blamed the “experimental nature of ecological restoration” and “unpredictable response of ecosystems following management intervention” for part of the shortfall.

Parks Canada also spent $9-million less than it had planned to in 2014-2015 on parks conservation.

In years prior, the agency also failed to meet its targets and spent less than it had planned on parks conservation.

Ms. Gelfand told the House Environment Committee in May that there had been almost no money allotted for management of bird sanctuaries and national wildlife areas, apart from funding for the protection of ducks.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) was not available for an interview to respond to the concerns raised by the collection of environmental groups, according to her office.

The Conservative government didn’t neglect the protected areas portfolio on the whole. It supported the creation of the Rouge Park in Ontario, the Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories, the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area in Ontario, the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area in British Columbia, the Mealy Mountains National Park in Labrador, and an expansion to the Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories.

The Conservatives also set aside hundreds of millions to pay for improving roads, bridges, dams and other infrastructure within national parks, and supporting the Natural Areas Conservation Program, which distributes money to the non-profit Nature Conservancy Canada to protect privately-owned land.

In November 2014, the government announced more than $2.5-billion over five years to fund more improvements to infrastructure in Canada’s protected areas—scheduled to kick in after the 2015 election, easing the path for the Conservatives to balance the budget in 2015.

That spending would help to “address the backlog of deferred work” on parks infrastructure, according to Parks Canada.

 

Aichi targets looming larger

However, despite the expansion of Canada’s park system, Canada’s government is lagging far behind international commitments to protect land and marine territory.

The Conservative government committed to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in 2010 at a meeting of members of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Those targets include protecting 17 per cent of land and 10 per cent of marine territory by 2020.

At the time, Canada had protected less than one per cent of its marine territory, and 9.6 per cent of its land territory. Even with the creation and expansion of national parks and other protected areas under the Harper government, Canada has only now protected 10.6 per cent of its land and 0.9 per cent of its marine territory, according to the federal environment ministry.

Those figures don’t take into account all of the private land given up for conservation, said Robert Sopuck (Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa, Man.), the Conservative parks critic. To count towards the Aichi targets, land must meet criteria set out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Mr. Sopuck said the Aichi targets were “aspirational,” and challenged the idea that the habitat in Canada’s parks and protected areas was deteriorating, saying statements to that effect were based on “vague generalizations” and did not reflect what he saw while spending time in Riding Mountain National Park in his riding.

Nonetheless, the Liberals doubled down on the Aichi targets in their campaign platform, even promising to reach five per cent protected marine territory by 2017 and the full 10 per cent by 2020.

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Canada’s progress protecting land and sea. Environment and Climate Change Canada graphic.

The government appears to have “no roadmap” to achieving its target, particularly for the protection of land, said Éric Hébert-Daly, national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Ms. Ray echoed that concern, though she added that the 17 per cent land target could be achieved if all of the areas currently being considered for protection were roped off by 2020.

A multi-jurisdictional working group has been tasked with putting together a plan to meet the Aichi targets, and given until May 2017 to produce that plan, Sue Milburn-Hopwood, the acting assistant deputy minister for the Canadian Wildlife Service, told the House Environment Committee in May.

The government hopes to protect almost 15,000 square kilometres by establishing the Edéhzhíe national wildlife area in the Northwest Territories by 2017, said Ms. Milburn-Hopwood.

The 2016 budget also provided funding to establish the proposed Thaidene Nëné national park reserve in the Northwest Territories and Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area in Nunavut.

“I can understand people’s impression that, as of today, it doesn’t look good,” said Liberal MP Deb Schulte (King-Vaughan, Ont.), who chairs the House Environment Committee, which is currently studying federal protected areas and conservation objectives.

Ms. Schulte acknowledged that the government was not on pace to meet the Aichi targets. She said the government has “every intention of making those targets,” but would need the co-operation of provinces and territories to reach its goals.

National parks and other protected areas are usually established on provincial or territorial crown land.

Reaching the Aichi targets is still possible, but will require a concerted effort from the government, said NDP MP Wayne Stetski (Kootenay-Columbia, B.C.) his party’s parks critic.

Establishing a new national park takes years, and other options may be better suited to help the government meet its Aichi targets, said Mr. Hazell. One possibility would be to work with First Nations open to conserving large swaths of land under their control, he said.

Reference

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