'Conservation is a priority,' minister tells skeptics of land protection plan
Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development to double amount of protected land by 2021
Conservation groups and environmentalists are applauding the provincial government's plan to more than double the amount of protected land in New Brunswick, but the initiative has its skeptics.
New Brunswick currently preserves around 4.6 per cent of its land, but plans to increase that to 10 per cent by the end of next year.
Despite recent calls for this exact policy, critics were caught off guard by the announcement, made Monday, and have been vocal about waiting for the other shoe to drop — specifically in the form of future concessions to major industrial forestry companies.
"Are they going to cut these protected areas like the Caledonia Gorge and North Pole Stream area?" asked one poster on a hunters group on Facebook. "Hard to imagine anything left worth protecting."
"Good luck it'll never happen haha," wrote another group member.
Mike Holland, minister of natural resources and energy development, said there's no deal with industry to offset the conservation plan with any other kind of incentive.
"This is a conservation announcement," he said. "It was meant to enhance, improve, and increase the conservation footprint of the province of New Brunswick."
Holland said he's been working since the announcement to convince detractors that the conservation move is genuine.
But he said he understands the skepticism, especially after the fallout from the heavily critized forestry deal a previous Progressive Conservative government worked out with industry five years ago.
That deal, under former premier David Alward, gave some of the biggest forestry companies like J.D. Irving Ltd. — which lobbied hard for the change — access to 20 per cent more Crown land for logging, an increase of 660,000 cubic metres. Premier Blaine Higgs said earlier this year that he would be open to changing the deal.
"When you talk about the 2014 forestry plan and how it was weighted toward industry, there was no conservation piece in that," Holland said.
"So, in an effort to find balance and find collaboration between both industry and conservation, it was very crucial that we pay attention to that."
Because of the earlier criticism, Holland said he will decide what land will be conserved, with input from conservation groups and First Nations, as well as industry players.
Holland promised the land that will be conserved will not simply be areas that are of little interest to industry.
Although he wouldn't disclose which areas are being considered, he said the "size and scope of some are significant, in a variety of geographical areas," and in many cases "connected to each other."
Holland said he expects the protected lands will be designated as such for generations to come and that some areas will include clearcuts that will be able to mature into old-growth forests.
What could be considered more surprising than the conservation announcement itself are the figures Holland has been able to rally to champion the initiative.
Critics who are normally quick to decry many department announcements for pandering to industry are instead featured in online government ads expressing support for this move.
That includes Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, who said she's cautiously optimistic about the plan.
"When you start at the back of the pack, it's actually not that hard to put aside some more protected area," she said.
Corbett suggested that a barrage of weather events over the last few years may have motivated the government to protect more lands.
She listed tropical storm Arthur, ice storms in the northern part of the province, and record high floods over the last two years that brought millions in damage, including a flood at the provincial legislature, as possible reasons for the government's about-face.
"What you have to have is the political will and the people behind you to get it done," said Corbett.
And while she said she was genuinely impressed with the conservation increase, she'll be waiting to see how much resolve the department has going forward.
"The proof in that will be in the minister's next step, which will hopefully be in December, when he goes about changing and modernizing the Crown [Lands and] Forests Act," said Corbett.
"And that's where we'll see some impact on our large industry."