The New Brunswick government is seeking public input on its plan to create 138 new protected natural areas and expand 21 existing ones, Natural Resources Minister Paul Robichaud announced on Friday.
The proposed changes, in the works for the past two years, would permanently protect an additional 115,000 hectares of Crown land, bringing the provincial total to 273,000 hectares.
“These new and expanded areas will be permanently protected sanctuaries where nature can exist with minimal human interference,” Robichaud said during a news conference at the department office in South Tetagouche.
Information about the proposed changes will be posted online for 28 days for public comment before they are officially designated through regulation, he said.
"They have to go online to tell us exactly what they like or don't like and it's still possible at the end of the 28 days to make some changes, but basically, for the last two years, consultation took place, everyone knew we were in the process to look at the possibility to double our natural areas in the province, so I'm not expecting to have a lot of negative feedback."
The areas, located in each of the provinces distinct natural regions, were chosen for their ecological value and importance as wildlife habitat.
They were selected based on consultation with scientists, naturalists, biologists and foresters, as well as citizens and stakeholders, dating back to October 2012, said Robichaud.
But the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society contends the new, protected land pales in comparison to the forest opened up for clearcutting under the forestry strategy released in March.
"One step forward with the protected natural areas and two steps back with the forest strategy, so that's why we're really concerned it's not a net increase for conservation, it's a decrease for conservation," said Roberta Clowater, the executive director of the New Brunswick branch.
Clowater, who has previously accused the provincial government of being more concerned about development than protection, says the PNA announcement is is an attempt to balance out the backlash from the forestry strategy.
"It's just a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed for New Brunswick to actually move us up to the national average and keep up to all the provinces and territories, what everyone else around us is doing in respect to protected areas."
There are currently 60 protected natural areas on Crown land in New Brunswick.
The new and expanded areas would boost the proportion of permanently protected Crown land across the province to 8.2 per cent, up from the current 4.7 per cent.
By comparison, Nova Scotia protects about 12 per cent of forested areas.
The New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources had initially identified 190 candidate sites, totalling 143,000 hectares.
PNAs can still be used for hiking, camping and fishing, but industrial activities and higher impact recreational uses are not permitted.