I’ve sometimes heard people say that nature conservation is simply a “nice to have.” They claim that beautiful parks and protected areas are nice to visit and attractive to the eye, but only for those who like to paddle or camp. They don’t see conservation as a critical piece of both the environmental and economic puzzle. That’s an unfortunate approach, and largely the product of trying to solve problems in isolation of one another. The truth is that conservation is a highly effective contribution to a healthy and prosperous country.
When you dig a little deeper, you will find many challenges that conservation can help address:
Mitigating climate change: For years, we’ve viewed the climate change problem as an issue of industrial or tailpipe emissions, but the degradation of ecosystems from industrial activities also contributes to the warming of our climate. Large areas of the boreal forest in Canada actually store more carbon per hectare than the Amazonian rainforest. Nahanni National Park stores almost as much carbon as is emitted yearly in Canada by industrial sources. Conserving the forests, peatlands, and wetlands of the boreal makes a huge contribution to mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Adaptation of species: Protected areas are vital for ensuring that species and their habitats can withstand the impacts of climate change. A network of connected protected areas enable species to adapt to a warming climate by moving to other intact ecosystems. Similarly, as water temperatures rise, marine protected areas can help ensure that whales and fish have a safe passage to water temperatures that are more suited to the species.
Clean air and water: Nature provides a number of eco-services at no cost to us. Trees clean the air, and intact ecosystems purify our water. The most conservative analysts put the actual economic value of nature in the trillions of dollars. Despite this, a tree’s worth is regarded as nothing until it’s cut down, and streams have zero economic value until they are redirected or polluted in the interests of ‘valid’ economic activity. Replacing what our ecosystems give us for free is expensive—and not easily done. Not even our current government’s significant infrastructure budget commitments would come close to covering the real cost of these vital services.
Natural disaster prevention: Flooding in communities across Canada is costing us billions of dollars and is predicted to increase as an effect of climate change. The removal of the shrubs, trees and plants that line the banks of our rivers also takes away the natural sponge effect they provide. Without them, rain and melt-water will create surges that make living downstream a dangerous place to be.
Biodiversity loss: Hundreds of species in Canada are endangered due to the loss of their habitat. Protected areas are a key strategy for ensuring the recovery of these species. Furthermore, if we protect the habitat of certain ‘umbrella’ species like the boreal woodland caribou that need large intact forest areas to survive, we’d be protecting the home of many other species that use the same habitat.
Reconciliation with indigenous communities: In the past, land-use planning exercises by indigenous communities have been ignored by other governments in Canada. Areas identified by indigenous communities for conservation are instead staked for mining and harvested for forestry, endangering both ecological and cultural values. If indigenous rights were respected, the Dehcho in the Northwest Territories would be protecting half of their traditional lands and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) would see a significantly larger marine protected area in Lancaster Sound. True nation-to-nation relationships could be respected and honoured by upholding the conservation decisions by indigenous communities themselves.
Respecting international agreements: In 2010, Canada became a signatory to the International Convention on Biological Diversity which requires us to protect 17 per cent of our land and 10 per cent of our ocean by 2020. This is an important first step towards the 50 per cent protection that science has determined is necessary to maintain life-supporting ecosystem and biodiversity services that are essential to the health of both humans and nature. To date, Canada has managed to protect only 10 per cent of its land and only one per cent of its ocean. Other countries are well ahead of us on both fronts, and many are investing significant dollars to re-naturalize areas that have been previously disturbed. Creating protected areas demonstrates that we take our international obligations seriously. Given the percentage of our land that still remains intact, Canada still has the opportunity to do the right thing.
Resolving boundary disputes: There are a number of places across Canada where struggles for resources and access are points of contention. Whether it’s arctic sovereignty, marine boundary conflicts or upstream development impacts on watersheds, conservation can be an elegant solution to resolving these issues. International Peace Parks where conservation measures are enforced will help reduce battles over who owns what.
Protecting the resource economy: Human pressures on the environment are putting our traditional resource industries at risk. Forestry and fishing are two examples of industries that require conservation measures to ensure their long-term survival. Marine protected areas allow fish populations to grow and thrive, while protected forests ensure that trees can regenerate naturally. It may sound crazy to think that conservation can help ensure the future of extractive industries, but it is a key component of renewable resources industries.
Contributing to the economy: Parks and protected areas are great economic drivers. Canada is known for its majestic natural beauty and vast wilderness, and people from all over the world come to experience it firsthand. While cultural and eco-tourism industries are often seen as secondary economic drivers and natural resource extraction as the ‘real’ economy, this is far from the truth. Eco-tourism provides jobs in the parts of the country that are the most vulnerable to economic instability. An extraction economy is not sustainable over the long term and is subject to high peaks and low valleys. As people around the world move to economic development models that foster experiences rather than products, Canada could be at the forefront of this movement instead of relying so heavily on extraction. We are rich in nature and culture. Let’s encourage people to come and see it rather than exporting it in pieces for their consumption.
As you can see, conservation is an integral part of the solution. We need to think big and we need to do it soon if we are to have a fighting chance. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has advocated the need to protect at least half of our country’s wilderness. Corporations, First Nations and conservation groups share a vision of protecting half of the Boreal forest in Canada with the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework adopted in 2003. The Nature Needs Half™ movement has gone international in the last decade and this same concept is the topic of E.O. Wilson’s newest book Half Earth. It is a balanced approach to what is needed to ensure our long-term survival as a planet.
Conservation, of which protected areas are the cornerstone, may not be the whole solution to our long-term survival, but it must be seen as a central piece of the puzzle. The longer we think of it as a ‘nice to have’, the less time we have to do the right thing and contribute to solving many of our vexing national problems. Conservation saves us money, makes us money, helps preserve our wildlife, enhances healthy relationships with indigenous communities, keeps us safe from harm and gives us the life-sustaining clean water and air we need to survive. Makes it hard to imagine why it isn’t the centrepiece of the government’s agenda.
Éric Hébert-Daly is executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
The Hill Times
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