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Canada is committed to protecting natural areas. But is it protecting the right ones?

For many Albertans, the eastern slopes of the Rockies are the source of water we drink and time in nature that we crave. 

Unprotected eastern slopes of the Rockies of 'national importance,' researcher says

The eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains extend from Hinton, Alta., to Lethbridge in the province's south. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

For many Albertans, the eastern slopes of the Rockies are the source of water we drink and time in nature that we crave. 

But the water and forests stretching from Hinton to Lethbridge aren't among Canada's officially protected natural areas, one of the red flags that emerged from a three-year study, says a conservation scientist and study co-author.

"That is actually one of the places that emerges in our research of national importance. It just absolutely shines in the maps for its combination of carbon [protection], freshwater and recreation, right in our own backyards," Aerin Jacob, with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Thursday.

"And that area is not protected."

A paper, published recently in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that the country's vast network of parks isn't adequately safeguarding areas that provide fresh water and recreation to nearby populations.

It also says over half of the areas that Canadians rely on for those benefits are facing mining, energy or forestry pressure.

The research was motivated by a Canadian commitment to protect 30 per cent of its land and freshwater by 2030, Jacob said.

Currently, Canada has protected about 12 per cent — which means a lot of decisions are going to be made in the next decade, she noted.

Those decisions will require context, and that's what the researchers have aimed to provide. 

"We looked at some of the benefits that people get from nature. And nature provides all kinds of benefits for us and largely for free — this includes things like protecting us from floods or pollinating our crops," she said.

Researchers focused on three key benefits: outdoor recreation, to maintain health; stored carbon, which helps regulate the climate; and freshwater, "used for everything from the cup of coffee you might be drinking to watering crops," she said.

These types of benefits, which often impact people who live nowhere near the natural area, aren't always part of the equation when natural areas are considered for protection.

"We need to start considering those other benefits," said Matthew Mitchell, the paper's lead author.

A compilation image, published as part of the study looking at protected natural areas in Canada, show nature-based recreation in Yukon's Kluane National Park, carbon sinks in Ontario's Hudson Bay lowlands, freshwater in the Golden Ears Provincial Park in B.C., and a combination of the benefits in Alberta's Bighorn Wildland. (Photo credits: M. Mitchell, A. Kirkwood, A. Jacob)

As an example, a remote watershed in northern British Columbia may filter a lot of water, but it all runs into the ocean. A stream in the Alberta foothills may not hold as much, but it all flows into rivers on which millions depend. 

An Arctic national park may be spectacular, but a beautiful spot in the south is likely to be more affected by heavy visitor numbers.

The research found "hot spots" where those environmental assets are both abundant and heavily used. It says the areas line up poorly with Canada's protected areas network.

And the eastern slopes of the Rockies, stretching from Hinton to Lethbridge, popped out as an area that needs protection.

The area is heavily logged and drilled and in May, the Alberta government cancelled environmental protections that have been in place since 1976 and opened up large parts of the eastern slopes for coal mining, a decision being challenged in court.

 "[That] means that 53,000 square kilometres of Alberta's Rocky Mountains and foothills — an area the size of Nova Scotia — is now open to open-pit coal mining with zero public consultation," she said.

"That ... puts at risk things that people come from all around the world — and all over the province, for sure — to experience. Things that benefit millions and millions of people all the way out into the Prairies for water, carbon that benefits people around the world for climate regulations, and especially recreation."

Jacob said the group hopes the research, which it's been sharing with different levels of government, will help decision-makers, as well as regular Canadians, understand some of goals behind managing and protecting natural places.

"We also want to make sure that people know what's at stake. There's a lot of decisions that society has to make about the kind of things, the kind of future we want to have," she said.

"And information like this, when it's used well, can help government make really smart decisions that will protect people for generations to come."

With files from The Canadian Press

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