Nfld. & Labrador

Environmental advisers resign claiming N.L. government won't listen to advice

Both are senior members of the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council, and say for decades government has ignored their advice on protecting wilderness areas in Newfoundland and Labrador.

'I can't be complicit any longer with a process that's failed,' says wildlife biologist

Seabird expert Bill Montevecchi stepped down from WERAC last week after nearly 30 years. Last month biologist Victoria Neville resigned as well. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Two senior members of the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council have resigned in protest within the last month, claiming the provincial government is ignoring their advice on protecting important wilderness areas in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We were no further ahead than we were when I started in 2014, and the entire 5½ years that I had been at WERAC we had not made one single stride in protecting anything. And that's when I knew it had been a waste of my time," said biologist Victoria Neville, who quit last month as the council's co-chair.

Formed in 1980, WERAC is a government-appointed council that advises the province on its wilderness protection efforts.

It's made up of private citizens from a variety of backgrounds who are experts in their respective fields, and falls under the province's Department of Fisheries and Land Resources.

In 1995 the council drafted its Natural Areas System Plan, a blueprint for protecting the environment and helping to identify other sensitive areas in the province.

To date no government has implemented the plan.

"I began to feel embarrassed about chairing a council that wasn't doing what it was mandated to do," Neville said.

The other WERAC member to resign — MUN biology professor Bill Montevecchi — had spent nearly 30 years on the council.

Montevecchi says protected ecological areas such as Witless Bay wouldn't exist without the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act. (CBC)

The seabird expert's concerns are similar to Neville's.

"We don't make these things up. There are certain ecological areas of our province, they're defined by biology, they're defined by ecology, they're defined by science. We only have so many of them and they're deteriorating," he said.

"Let's look at the big picture. Let's set something representative aside so that we can protect most of this." 

Paradigm shift

Montevecchi says he wants the government to change its priorities, shifting them from an emphasis on oil and mining.

He said government needs someone who wants to protect the environment.

"We don't need another minister who is going to spin a happy time story about how committed he or she is. We need a paradigm shift. We need people who have courage," he said. 

"The environment in this province doesn't have a priority."

Montevecchi holds a northern gannet that was captured at the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve in eastern Newfoundland in April 2011. (Submitted)

Both Montevecchi and Neville hope their sudden resignations send a message about the seriousness of their effort to protect the province's delicate and fading natural wilderness areas.

Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne declined an interview, but a spokesperson responded with an emailed statement. 

"We understand their frustrations over the lengthy and challenging process to establish a protected areas network — a process that has spanned multiple administrations," it reads. 

"WERAC's scientific advice and leadership is essential to striking a balance between the sometimes conflicting values of conservation and resource development, and establishing and managing the province's wilderness and ecological reserves."

Both Montevecchi and Neville say they'll move on and focus their efforts elsewhere. 

"I would like to be on the WERAC council, but I can't be complicit any longer with a process that's failed, a process that's not doing what it's supposed to do for the people of this province," Montevechhi said.

"We have people write to us all the time about protected areas, areas they want to protect, and we can't even act. It's ludicrous and I can't be a part of that."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show, On The Go

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