Hill Times: It's Time for Canada to Think Big on Conservation



By Dr. John Jacobs & Dr. Stuart Pimm

July 18, 2019 | The Hill Times

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Deadlines are fast approaching to meet international targets for protecting lands and waters. Many of us concerned about the future of the planet are asking: Will Canada be a bold leader or a timid laggard in responding to the crisis we face? The next few weeks could provide an answer.

We can’t afford to wait much longer. The planet is in trouble. The United Nations’ recent report found that animal and plant species are going extinct a hundred to a thousand times faster than their natural rate. The primary culprit is habitat loss. Humans are gnawing away at land that species need to survive, and the disappearance of plants and animals threatens the food we eat, water we drink and medicines we use for healing.

The good news is we can stem the tide of extinctions by protecting lands that are still vibrant. But we have to think big.

When it comes to conservation, size matters. The interconnected web of life needs space to thrive. Small pieces of forest carved up by development, for instance, don’t provide caribou or other animals enough room to evade predators, find food, and raise their young. But large expanses of trees and wetlands allow them to flourish.

Canada has a special responsibility to conserve nature on a grand scale. It is one of five nations that hold the 70 per cent of wilderness left on the planet. Its boreal forest is the biggest intact forest in the world and holds a quarter of the world’s wetlands. This country still has the chance to ensure the land can support animals and humans and to make a significant contribution to addressing climate change.

As part of the global effort to sustain biodiversity, Canada committed in 2015 to protecting at least 17 per cent of lands by 2020. Yet it has safeguarded only 11.8 per cent so far, putting it last among G7 nations. Last year, the federal government set aside $175-million to help accelerate toward the goal.

Now, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is poised to make decisions on support for a set of protected areas proposals that could advance toward completion.

The biggest, most ambitious proposals for conserving lands have come from Indigenous nations. These Indigenous-led projects offer Canada the best chance to conserve lands on the scale nature—and our future—requires.

In the Upper Mackenzie River Valley, for instance, the Sahtu Dene are proposing Indigenous protected areas that will conserve over 100,000 square kilometres of boreal forest that support caribou, moose, trout and migratory songbirds. These lands store enormous amounts of carbon—the equivalent of almost 35 years of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, outside the proposed areas, the Sahtu also identified places where development could occur. From the Innu Nation in Labrador to the Kaska Dena of northern British Columbia, dozens of Indigenous nations have proposed protecting lands rich in biodiversity. Federal funding support will be critical to advance these areas to completion. 

Click here to read the rest of the op-ed on the Hill Times website.

The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade