National Conservation Plan: Great news, but HOW will we make it a success? [PART 1]

[This blog post is part 1 of a 2-part series. Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2]

So it’s Canada Environment Week — did you know? More importantly, did you know that in mid-May the federal government made a significant commitment to conservation in Canada?

That’s right. On May 15th, just days before the United Nations International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22), the federal government released its long-awaited National Conservation Plan. Though the details are still unclear, the Plan promises to invest $252-million over the next five years in Conserving Canada’s lands and waters, restoring Canada’s ecosystems and Connecting Canadians to nature.

This is a positive achievement and it’s one that we at Nature Canada generally applaud. For a long time, we have been a key advocate for a lot of the sorts of things that this plan talks about and, of course, connecting Canadians to nature is our core mission.

Algonquin Park wetland showing black spruce and a typical Canadian Shield landscape, Ontario, Canada, protected area

Publicly accessible protected areas like Ontario’s Algonquin Park aren’t directly addressed in the National Conservation Plan.

During Prime Minister Harper’s announcement of the Plan in New Brunswick in May, Canadians were told that “[a]n ethic of true stewardship cannot be imposed by regulation, it is of the heart”, and that we  “… should become willingly and eagerly a community of stewards”.

We don’t disagree with either of these statements, but we question how the investments announced under the Plan will achieve these lofty goals. In Nature Canada’s case, we’ve been trying to achieve these goals since 1939 — longer than any other national conservation organization in Canada — and it’s not easy. And with the phenomenon of ‘nature deficit disorder’ and our growing disconnect with the natural world, it’s surely not getting any easier with time.

This question of “how” to achieve the Plan’s goals arises again this Canada Environment Week, for which this year’s theme is “Strengthening our Environment Today for Tomorrow”.

The government’s investment of $252 million promises to “build on the conservation measures announced in Budget 2014” over a 5 year period from 2014 to 2019, with notable funding injections in the following areas:

  • $10 million/year for the voluntary restoration and conservation of species and their habitats (presumably referring to species at risk stewardship and recovery funding)
  • $7.4 million/year for marine and coastal conservation (presumably referring to marine protected areas, which need to jump from just 1% protection currently all the way to 10% by 2020, as per the UN Convention on Biological Diversity)
  • $1.84 million/year to connect urban Canadians to nature (presumably referring to new programs, or perhaps the Rouge National Urban Park…?)

These investments are intended to build on approximately $406.5 million announced in Budget 2014 for natural heritage conservation by Parks Canada and Fisheries & Ocean over the next 5 years – 96% of which is actually for infrastructure improvements in national parks and along historic canals. One could argue that this infrastructure makes it easier for people access to nature, yes, but it doesn’t necessarily remove the most important barriers for people. Barriers like the distance, cost and time associated with visiting Canada’s amazing national parks and other protected land- and seascapes. Absent from Budget 2014 was any mention of funding for the protection of publicly-owned marine or terrestrial protected areas because Canada protects so little of its overall land area compared to the United States.

Today, however, in response to CPAWS’ Dare to be Deep report on marine protection in Canada, CBC reports that Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea’s office stated the following: “We remain committed to meet our target of protecting 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020 under the International Convention on Biological Diversity.” Again, the question of “how” looms large.

Stay tuned tomorrow where we’ll explore the “how” issue and others in depth.