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Why the Suffield National Wildlife Area Matters
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Why the Suffield National Wildlife Area Matters

[caption id="attachment_29148" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Asma Hassan Asma Hassan, Guest Blogger[/caption] This blog is written by Asma Hassan. The Suffield National Wildlife Area (NWA) was created in 2003 as a sanctuary for endangered prairie wildlife. Located in Alberta, the area is approximately 458 km2 and consists of several types of habitats including grasslands and sand dunes. The site has been the topic of debate in the recent past due to proposals to drill for oil and gas in the NWA. Nature Canada proposes that this NWA should be expanded to protect 410 km2  of adjacent community pastures that also include important grasslands habitat. What is so special about the Suffield NWA? The Suffield NWA is a unique protected area in terms of its management, the diverse habitats it provides and the wildlife that resides there. Some of the species living in the Suffield NWA are either endangered or threatened in the prairies generally, but are present at Suffield on account of its various habitats, some of which are rare. There are currently 20 at-risk wildlife species such as  Ord's Kangaroo Rat, Western Harvest Mouse and Burrowing Owl living in this particular NWA. In addition to being an important habitat for at-risk wildlife, the Suffield NWA is also home to at-risk plant species.Image of ord's kangaroo rat Who manages this NWA? This is where it gets a bit unusual. The management of the Suffield NWA has been delegated to the Department of National Defence by Environment and Climate Change Canada. To further explain this, we will need to go back in time a little bit. The land has been under environmental protection since the Canadian Forces Base Suffield was established in 1971. Apart from authorized research, the public are not permitted to visit this NWA. This measure has been taken to ensure that this fragile ecosystem is not disturbed. What are all the debates about? Development may be authorized in the Suffield NWA under the Canada Wildlife Act despite its status as a protected area. In 2009, EnCana proposed the construction of 1,275 natural gas wells in the area. The project was turned down by then-Environment Minister Jim Prentice in accordance with the recommendations of a Joint Review Panel due to the adverse effects the project would have had on wildlife, The Panel’s recommendations still allow for proposals of a similar nature to be brought forward in future. Why does this matter? Due to its size, the Suffield NWA is able to support numerous at-risk prairie species and potentially aid in their recovery. The expansion of this area is imperative because it would further benefit these species on a scale that is both impressive and rare. Conversely, any action to build potentially harmful infrastructures could have a significant negative impact on Canada’s increasingly threatened grasslands ecosystems. To learn more about the areas that are proposed to be protected, click here.

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A Victory for Canada’s Grasslands
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A Victory for Canada’s Grasslands

[two_third] After last week's terrific news about Suffield National Wildlife Area, former Nature Canada staffer Carla Sbert, who campaigned for years to prevent further industrialization inside this protected area, sent us the following. Thanks for the guest post Carla, and for all your hard work on this campaign! Finally, it’s time to celebrate a major win for prairie conservation! After almost four years of waiting for a government decision, last week the federal government rejected Cenovus’ gas project within CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area (NWA). Congratulations to all on the environmental coalition who worked so tirelessly to make the case for protecting Suffield! The countless hours preparing submissions to and participating in the environmental assessment panel hearings, all the correspondence sent and press releases issued, and all the conference calls, have now paid off. The result is a good decision for Suffield, a great precedent for NWAs and an important precedent for species at risk. Suffield NWA is one of the most important remnants of native prairie in Canada. It is home to at least 15 species that are listed as at risk of extinction under to the federal Species at Risk Act and many others listed at the provincial level. It is also home to species that need native prairie habitat to remain off these ‘endangered’ lists.

Yet, the ecological integrity of the Suffield NWA was threatened by a Cenovus proposal to drill 1,275 shallow gas wells. Almost four years after a Joint Review Panel recommended against this project, the government has agreed that its environmental impact would be too great and is not justified. But how could it be that Cenovus was proposing to drill in a protected area? In short, because there are loopholes in our laws that allow companies to hold subsurface rights within a protected area. So this is one reason to welcome the government’s decision against the project: it sets the right precedent by favoring conservation over industrial development in protected areas. Why is the conservation of Suffield NWA so important? Grassland ecosystems are among the most threatened globally and in Canada. Grasslands birds are declining at alarming rates, while other grasslands species are also at risk. On top of that, land uses that favor conservation are giving way to commercial interests, and climate change is adding pressure on the ecosystem. Protecting Suffield is critical for conserving native prairie. You can’t have both a protected area and a gas patch. With this decision, Suffield remains a protected area for the conservation of wildlife. Bravo! Thanks to the staff and volunteers at the sevens groups that make up the Suffield Coalition: Alberta Wilderness Association, Federation of Alberta Naturalists, World Wildlife Fund Canada, Nature Saskatchewan, Southern Alberta Group for the Environment, Grasslands Naturalists, and Nature Canada. [/two_third] [one_third_last] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="320"]Image of field of flowers Suffield. Photo: Andy Teucher[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="320"]Image of Ferruginous hawk Ferruginous hawk. Photo: Cliff Wallis[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="320"]Image of Kangaroo Rat Ord's Kangaroo Rat. Photo: Andy Teucher[/caption] [/one_third_last]

Suffield National Wildlife Area Saved from Expanded Drilling!
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Suffield National Wildlife Area Saved from Expanded Drilling!

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="320"]Field Mouse Nature Canada Bird Conservation Manager Ted Cheskey with Wood Thrush[/caption] Great news! Environment Minister Peter Kent announced today that it would deny a proposal from energy giant Cenovus to add 1,275 shallow gas wells and 220 km of pipeline inside Suffield National Wildlife Area! Suffield NWA is a special space of rare prairie grassland, sand hills and ancient glacial valleys. It's home to at least 19 federally listed species at risk, including the burrowing owl, the loggerhead shrike, and Ord's kangaroo rat. Nature Canada has been on this file since the project was first made public in 2006. Nature Canada supporters raised their voices in alarm over this potentially precedent-setting development as far back as 2008, when thousands of you demanded public hearings into Cenovus' (then called Encana) plans.  No permit of this nature has ever been granted inside a national wildlife area in Canada, and you reminded the government that’s the way it should stay. Thanks in part to your letters early in our campaign, we did manage to convince the government to conduct a full and public review of the proposed drilling project. The independent panel that conducted that review found that the project would likely result in significant interference with the conservation of wildlife. Now, nearly three years after the panel recommended rejecting Cenovus' permit, the federal government has made the right decision and said "no" to Cenovus' proposal. When our elected officials make the right call, it's important that they hear from Canadians. So, please, add your voice.  Send your letter  of congratulations to Ministers Peter Kent and Peter MacKay today.

Our comments ‘for the birds’ receive a nod in the 2012 Management Plan for NWT’s Aulavik National Park
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Our comments ‘for the birds’ receive a nod in the 2012 Management Plan for NWT’s Aulavik National Park

[two_third]I'm happy to report that comments Nature Canada provided on the draft management plan for Aulavik National Park in 2011 have received a nod in the official 2012 version of the plan, which was tabled in Parliament earlier this summer. We received a hard-copy of that official, legal version of the plan on Tuesday and it is available for download here.

Aulavik National Park is located on Banks Island in the Northwest Territories and fully encompasses another federal protected area, the Banks Island No. 2 Migratory Bird Sanctuary, as well as the globally significant Thomsen River Important Bird Area. The sanctuary was integrated into the park when it was established in 1992 and is managed through a Memorandum of Understanding between Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service, the government agency responsible for National Wildlife Areas and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries.
We suggested three things be reflected in the 2012 management plan:
i) Use the Thomsen River Important Bird Area and its resident wildlife populations (especially birds) as indicators in the park's ecological integrity monitoring program;
ii) Clearly state the fact that the subsurface lands under the bird sanctuary are fully protected as part of the national park. This would make the Banks Island No. 2 sanctuary exceptional, perhaps unique, among bird sanctuaries in Canada.
iii) Encourage Parks Canada to assume full administrative responsibility and control of Banks Island No.2, given the plan to manage it as part of the national park.
You can read Nature Canada's full comments on the 2011 draft management plan for the national park here.
I'm glad to see that the 2012 plan calls for coordination between Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service, given their shared responsibility for the sanctuary both under the Canada National Parks Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act (1994) and their respective regulations. Also, the 2012 plan calls for a new agreement between the two agencies that will "outline in specific terms the parameters that will guide co-operative management of the bird sanctuary".
The plan also cites the Important Bird Area as one of five aspects of the park that will be the focus of a Strategic Environmental Assessment for the management plan (required by the federal cabinet). One might argue that the above info would have been present in the plan regardless of Nature Canada's input, but whatever the case it's obvious that our comments resonated with Parks Canada.
I want to jump back to the second matter we addressed in our 2011 comments to make sure its significance is not overlooked. The laws used to create a national park require that all the lands within the park boundaries - from the mountaintops to the core of the Earth - are fully protected and off-limits to industrial development like mining and oil and gas exploration or extraction. The same is not true for Migratory Bird Sanctuaries and National Wildlife Areas in Canada.
Strangely, the laws that are used to create Migratory Bird Sanctuaries and National Wildlife Areas only protect the surface lands, leaving the lands beneath those protected areas wide open for development. There are regulations and restrictions in place to limit and prevent access to the lands within and beneath these areas, but anyone who has existing mineral or oil and gas rights is technically entitled to access them. Parks Canada has the legal ability to avoid this sticky 'mine vs. yours' issue, but the Canadian Wildlife Service does not. That's how we end up with sites like the Suffield National Wildlife Area that is home to 20 federally listed species at risk, as well as a proposal for 1,275 new shallow gas wells.
Nature Canada recently published a report on the need to close the legal loopholes that leave our federal protected areas for wildlife exposed to the threat of natural resource extraction, which we called The Underlying Threat.
Just for the record, Nature Canada recommended that Parks Canada take over responsibility for the Banks Island No. 2 sanctuary given the substantial difference in resources that agency has to manage the site compared to the Canadian Wildlife Service. This was not a vote of non-confidence on the exceptional and incredibly competent staff at the Wildlife Service; it is simply a reflection of the many rounds of significant funding and program cuts that the WIldlife Service has endured almost routinely since the early 1980s. We issued a report on this issue in 2002 called Conserving Wildlife on a Shoestring Budget, and the federal Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development noted that funding and capacity were still a problem for the Wildlife Service in his March 2008 status report.
[/two_third] [one_third_last] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="225"]Aulavik National Park and Banks Island Aulavik National Park and Banks Island
No. 2 Migratory Bird Sanctuary (taken
from Parks Canada)[/caption]   [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="320"]Image of Black Brant Black Brant, one of the species for which the Thomsen
River Important Bird Area was designated.[/caption] [/one_third_last]

Gift to the Earth – Celebrating Parks Canada’s 100th birthday with an eye to the future
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Gift to the Earth – Celebrating Parks Canada’s 100th birthday with an eye to the future

Good afternoon, Folks! I'd like to recap a fantastic week for protected areas in Canada last week. You'll recall that Parks Canada Agency marked its 100th anniversary last Thursday, the same day it received a prestigious “Gift to the Earth” award from WWF International. Way to go Parks Canada! One hundred years ago to the day, May 19th 1911, the Dominion Parks Branch (now the Parks Canada Agency) was created following the establishment of Banff National Park in 1885. This was the first national parks service in the world (Yellowstone National Park in the US was the first actual national park of its kind created in 1872) and has in many ways set the standard for how governments approach conservation in the national interest the world over. Nature Canada representatives attended a ceremony last Thursday to commemorate this important historic milestone, at which Parks Canada proudly highlighted its progress on protecting representative examples of Canada’s 39 natural regions on land and 29 marine natural regions on water. You can read more about that progress, as well as forthcoming parks and marine conservation areas here. You can read more about specific conservation achievements here. But Parks Canada and conservation organizations weren't just celebrating a 100th birthday and a major award last Thursday: the Agency also announced the remarkable expansion of Grasslands National Park through the addition of 110 square kilometers of native mixed prairie grassland on the park's existing West Block! Grasslands are one of the most threatened ecosystems in North America and the world and, as Canada's only national park in the Prairie Grasslands natural region, Grasslands National Park is home to several nationally-listed species at risk. Nature Canada and other organizations are working to safeguard Canada's remaining grasslands in the Prairies region and British Columbia's dry southern interior. You can celebrate Parks Canada's Centennial and its ongoing work to conserve Canada's epic wild spaces all year long with monthly themes focused on Canada's natural and cultural heritage. Nature Canada celebrates all of Parks Canada's conservation achievements and seconds WWF International’s choice for the Gift to the Earth award. Alongside other organizations, we have worked hard to support and advocate for the establishment of national parks across Canada to protect our wildlife and their habitats. And we’re poised for more exciting announcements by Parks Canada about further progress toward completing Canada’s national park/ marine conservation areas system. With parks and marine conservation areas currently in progress, Parks Canada is set to expand the national park/marine conservation area system by an additional 28% beyond its existing size – to over 410,000 square kilometers. One of the sites Nature Canada and other groups are working hard to establish is the proposed South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Reserve in British Columbia’s southern dry interior. That region is Canada’s “pocket desert” and is a truly unique ecological region that we need to protect before it’s too late. CBC recently did a piece on the issues surrounding that park proposal on The National television broadcast, which you can watch here. Here's to another great year for national parks, national marine conservation areas and other protected areas in Canada! Photos: Daybreak at La Mauricie National Park of Canada, Québec (A. MacDonald) Paddler's bliss in Kejimkujik National Park & National Historic Site, Nova Scotia (A. MacDonald)

Two years later: Canada still silent on gas drilling in National Wildlife Area
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Two years later: Canada still silent on gas drilling in National Wildlife Area

Today marks the two year anniversary of the release of recommendations of the Joint Review Panel assessing a proposal by EnCana Corporation (now Cenovus) to drill 1,275 shallow gas wells in the Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield National Wildlife Area. As we have done previously, the Suffield Coalition today wrote a letter to the Ministers of Defence and Environment to inquire about the government’s response to the Panel report, which we still await two years later. The Suffield Coalition comprises seven groups who actively participated in the Joint Review Panel process. The members are: Alberta Wilderness Association, Nature Alberta (formerly Federation of Alberta Naturalists), World Wildlife Fund Canada, Nature Saskatchewan, Southern Alberta Group for the Environment, Grasslands Naturalists, and Nature Canada. In today's letter we once again called on the federal government to close the door to any further industrial development in CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area and to ensure the long term conservation of Suffield as one of the most important areas of native grasslands remaining in North America. Two years ago the Suffield Coalition concurred with the Panel’s findings that the Cenovus/EnCana project would likely interfere with the conservation of wildlife, the core purpose of the National Wildlife Area. As the Panel pointed out, avoiding such interference is a requirement of the Wildlife Area Regulations. We therefore believe that federal permits to proceed with additional drilling in the NWA under the Wildlife Area Regulations or the Species at Risk Act should be denied. In their Report, the Panel recognized the importance of the NWA as one of the few large blocks of dry mixed-grass prairie remaining in Canada, and that the NWA was created to protect the ecological integrity of this land and the species that occupy it, including at least 15 species listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern under the Species at Risk Act. Sixteen of the Panel's 27 recommendations are prefaced by “should the project proceed”. They demonstrate the considerable challenges and uncertainties involved in mitigating the risk of significant adverse effects from the proposed drilling as well as from current activities on sensitive soils, native grassland, wetlands, ungulate winter range, five species of snakes and fifteen species at risk. Taking the risk implied within these recommendations is not appropriate within a National Wildlife Area. We believe it is not in the public interest to approve the project. The other 11 Panel recommendations are designed to address major deficiencies in environmental management within the NWA and CFB Suffield overall, whether or not the project proceeds. These recommendations include working with stakeholders like the Suffield Coalition. We are ready, willing, and able to help. But we await a response from the federal government.

The EnCana Trial That Wasn’t
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The EnCana Trial That Wasn’t

In 2007, EnCana (now Cenovus) was charged with violating the Canada Wildlife Act by building a section of a pipeline without a permit within CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area.

The trial was postponed numerous times -coincidentally, as EnCana's proposed project to drill more than 1,200 wells in the Suffield National Wildlife Area was undergoing an environmental assessment review. A year ago, the case was stayed temporarily. Now, it turns out that legally speaking it never happened.
The government has yet to make a decision on whether the Cenovus project will be approved and, if so, under what conditions.
Given that the panel that conducted the environmental assessment concluded the project would interfere with the conservation of wildlife, and set a very high bar for any approval, one could speculate that the "disappearance" of those charges are one less thing for the government, and Cenovus, to worry about.
Of course those of us concerned about the enforcement of wildlife conservation laws and the integrity of Suffield National Wildlife Area, have one more thing to worry about. Canadians need to have confidence that their government will uphold and enforce the rules intended to protect this irreplaceable wildlife habitat, including environmental assessment conditions.

Petition to Protect Canada’s Biodiversity
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Petition to Protect Canada’s Biodiversity

Nature Canada would like to thank all those who signed our letter asking the Canadian government to take action to conserve Canada's biodiversity during the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB). The petition letter, having 1,840 signatures, has been sent to PM Stephen Harper, Environment Minister John Baird and the environment critics from each of the opposition parties, urging them to take the following five actions: • Protect at least 50 per cent of Canada's Boreal Forest; • Protect Canada's endangered wildlife by effectively implementing the Species at Risk Act; • Save one of Canada's greatest grasslands treasures and the wildlife that live there. Close the door on further industrial development within Alberta's Suffield National Wildlife Area; • Declare a moratorium on new tar sands expansion until environmental and human health issues have been fully addressed; and • Commit to environmentally sustainable development in Canada's North. Demand that the Mackenzie Gas Project proceed only if it does not negatively impact the region's people and wildlife. If you would like to celebrate the IYB, here are five things you can do: • Do your part to use nature’s resources wisely and conserve energy at home and work. • Support native birds and butterflies by planting gardens and placing feeders around your home. • Learn ten new things about nature in your region, and share what you know with ten other people. • Read at least one book or watch one movie this year about biodiversity, nature, or the environment. • Participate in at least one outdoor expedition, such as a bird watching trip, to connect with nature. Once again, thank you all for your efforts and continuous support. In 2010, we remember that biodiversity is life. Biodiversity is our life.

Do Canadians want protected ‘National Mining Areas’ instead of National Wildlife Areas?
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Do Canadians want protected ‘National Mining Areas’ instead of National Wildlife Areas?

On Friday, October 29th, the federal government made an unexpected decision to permit mineral exploration in a highly anticipated protected area in the NWT. The 14,250 km-squared area west of Great Slave Lake is called Edéhzhíe (Horn Plateau) and is slated to soon become a National Wildlife Area (NWA). Perhaps the federal government instead wishes to designate a protected National Mining Area... Edéhzhíe is both culturally and ecologically significant for the Dehcho and Tłįcho peoples, and is enshrined in Dene tradition and spirituality. The Horn Plateau is an important wetland stop-over along the Central and Mississippi migratory flyways, and is not surprisingly home to the Mills Lake Important Bird Area (IBA), known for globally significant numbers of Tundra Swan and other waterfowl, and continentally significant numbers of Greater White-fronted Goose. Edéhzhíe also provides habitats for several ‘at-risk’ species including boreal woodland caribou, wood bison and wolverine. It is known as a “food basket” in times of need within surrounding Mackenzie Valley communities. Despite its rich natural and cultural heritage, Friday’s decision marks a significant policy reversal - one that opens up Edéhzhíe’s subsurface to mining and oil & gas industry interests. This ultimately poses a threat to the ecological integrity of important lakes and wetlands and boreal forest habitats in this region. This surprising decision overturns a formal request by the Grand Chiefs of the Dehcho First Nation and Tłįchǫ Government that Environment Minister Jim Prentice designate the Edéhzhíe NWA and permanently protect the subsurface lands beneath it. Friday’s decision also ignores recommendations for the same surface/subsurface protections made in a 2009 report by the Edéhzhíe Candidate Protected Area Working Group. That Working Group consulted widely with stakeholders on options for the area, as part of the multi-stakeholder NWT Protected Areas Strategy. The 2009 report was submitted to the Dehcho First Nation, the Tłįchǫ Government and Environment Canada, the federal department responsible for establishing and overseeing NWAs. Nature Canada is very disappointed with the federal government’s decision on Edéhzhíe, which was made just two days before interim government protections on both the surface and subsurface lands of Edéhzhíe were about to expire - after more than a decade of being retained. The decision was recommended by Minister John Duncan of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC; PC number 2010-1360), the federal department holding significant jurisdiction over resource management and social and economic development north of 60°. It should be noted that Minister Duncan's decision on Edéhzhíe was made indirectly: he recommended that only surface land withdrawals be 'renewed' for the area, instead of rights to both surface and subsurface lands. It's easy to get lost in the details. It's worth noting here that in 2009 the Edéhzhíe Working Group recommended a final boundary for the NWA that was 57% of the original 25,000 km-squared study area. The excluded portions represent most of the areas of significant lead/zinc and gas potential within the study area. A 2009 mining industry newsletter laments that even this reduced boundary is too restrictive and prevents the industry from understanding the “true resource potential” of the area, particularly that of diamonds. Interestingly, the 2008 socio-economic assessment of the Edéhzhíe Candidate Protected Area, done by AMEC consultants for INAC, suggests it would be 10-20 years before any non-renewable resource developments could be operational in the area. Nature Canada's disappointment in the government's Edéhzhíe decision stems from three points: First, there are clear legislative options to protect both the surface and subsurface lands of Edéhzhíe through an NWA designation combined with an Order in Council (under the Territorial Lands Act). This is what many conservation groups and the Dehcho First Nation and Tłįchǫ Government want. The Canada Wildlife Act gives the Minister of Environment authority to establish and manage NWAs across Canada, but does not protect subsurface lands beneath those NWAs. This is a serious weakness of the Act and currently makes NWAs the ‘poor cousins’ of more strictly protected areas like National Parks. Minister Duncan’s inaction with respect to protecting Edéhzhíe's subsurface suggests that INAC is not willing to support options that respect the wishes of key stakeholders. More importantly, this surprising situation suggests that INAC is not comfortable communicating its true intent to stakeholders of the Edéhzhíe NWA. Second, this decision has very serious implications for the entire network of 54 NWAs across Canada. This is the first time the federal government has 'opened' a proposed or existing NWA to industrial development. It sends a clear message that NWAs are not off-limits to subsurface resource extraction, regardless of what local stakeholders, First Nations governments and Canadians say about how these areas should be managed and safeguarded over time. While Nature Canada awaits the federal government’s final decision on Cenovus’s proposal to drill 1,275 gas wells inside the CFB Suffield NWA, we are dismayed that the writing may already be on the wall. This is even more concerning given the presence of nationally endangered species in the grasslands of Suffield NWA. Friday’s decision also raises important questions about national parks that are potentially threatened by resource extraction within or just beyond their borders, such as the recently announced Sable Island National Park or the proposed Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve. Third, we expected the federal government to respect the wishes of First Nations governments and the 2009 recommendations of the Edéhzhíe Working Group. We now question the government’s commitment to listen to First Nations and Aboriginal organizations and other stakeholders during future NWA designations through the NWT Protected Areas Strategy. This is particularly worrisome given that local communities in the NWT have shown support for subsurface protection in other candidate NWAs. While Friday’s decision opens the Horn Plateau’s subsurface to mining activity, interim protections on Edéhzhíe’s surface lands have been renewed until October 31, 2012. Please check back to follow Nature Canada's unfolding response to this story. The NWT Protected Area Strategy hosts an on-line album of Edéhzhíe photos you can view here. Photo 1: Mackenzie Valley, Jeff Wells Photo 2: Boreal Chickadee, Jeff Nadler Photo 3: Migrating Snow Geese, Stewart Marshall, Flickr

Looking Deeper Into Fish Lake
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Looking Deeper Into Fish Lake

Grizzly bears are one of the species identified by the Prosperity Review Panel that would be adversely affected by development at Fish Lake.
 
The government of Canada made a good decision earlier this week when it turned down a proposal for an excessively damaging mine at Fish Lake, British Columbia. Nature Canada congratulated Environment minister Jim Prentice for respecting the conclusions of the federal environmental assessment of the project, and for respecting the will of First Nations about land use in their territory. Looking deeper into the context of that decision reveals some important insights and implications.
Environmental assessment works While the process of environmental assessment may seem mysterious from a distance, Nature Canada has been up close and personal with it many times over the years and we are convinced it works. Environmental assessment allows independent panels to consider expert testimony, reach conclusions about the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project, and identify mitigation measures that could limit the damage. The resulting recommendation to the government (and it is only a recommendation) can range from approval of the project, to approval on the condition that certain mitigation measures be required, to rejection of the project as proposed. Politics happens The government must then decide whether or not to accept the recommendations about the studied project, and this is where the hard facts of environmental assessment meet the vagaries of politics. The government can follow the recommendations completely, partially, or not at all. But thanks to the public nature of the assessment process, we the citizens know whether or not our government is approving projects that destroy our environment. This is where the vagaries of politics meet accountability to the voters. In the case of Fish Lake, Minister Prentice deserves credit for doing the right thing for Canada, despite pressure from within his own caucus to do otherwise. More to come Nature Canada is very engaged in two other environmental assessments that are awaiting a response from the federal government: proposed gas drilling in the Suffield National Wildlife Area, and the proposed Mackenzie gas project. In the case of the Suffield NWA, the environmental assessment report concludes that the proposal to drill 1,275 gas wells would interfere with the purpose of the National Wildlife Area. It also recommends that the government complete overdue work to identify the critical habitat of species at risk, and take other conservation action even if the project does not proceed. We are hopeful that Minister Prentice will accept all of this panel's recommendations too, reject the gas drilling project, and take other actions to better protect the national wildlife area. In the case of the Mackenzie gas project, the federal government has been accused of attempting to secretly make the panel rewrite some of its recommendations. This suggests a lack of appreciation for a key feature upon which citizens depend: the independence of environmental assessment panels. We congratulate the panel for standing up for the their independence in the interest of Canada. We hope Minister Prentice will show leadership and convince his cabinet colleagues to accept the panel's report. You can help us encourage the government to stop the Mackenzie Gas Project and to instead establish protected areas in the Mackenzie Region that will be safe from development. Changing the rules Parliament will soon be undertaking a review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. There is cause for concern, since the government already used the budget bill to weaken the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act earlier this year. You can be certain that Nature Canada will be working to ensure the review results in a stronger act, not a weaker one. Back to the lake(s) The decision about Fish Lake is a good news story, and we hope it does not go down in history as a rare exception. A loophole in the law that protects fish habitat, the Fisheries Act, allows the government to exclude some lakes from the protections of the act and let mining companies use lakes as dumps for toxic mining waste. A handful of lakes has been targeted so far, including Fish Lake in BC and Sandy Pond in Newfoundland and Labrador. We are concerned that this loophole threatens pristine lakes across Canada. Now that Fish Lake has been spared, it's time to take action on the others.

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