Canada trails G7 in protecting land, parks advocates say

Canada lags behind most of the world in setting aside protected spaces, says the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

'Urgent action' needed to keep land and water from development and support species at risk

In 2010, Canada and the Lutsel k’e Dene First Nation committed to negotiate a park agreement for the eastern end of Great Slave Lake. Parks Canada is also in talks with the Northwest Territory Métis Nation. (Parks Canada)

Canada lags behind most of the world in setting aside protected spaces, parks advocates say.

According to a report to be released today from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Canada stands last among G7 countries in protecting land and freshwater areas.

With only 10.6 per cent of land protected from development, Canada also ranks behind other countries with a large land mass including Brazil (29.5 per cent), China (17.1 per cent), Australia (17 per cent) and the United States (13 per cent).

"With all Canadian ecosystems in declining health and Canada's list of endangered species growing each year largely due to habitat loss, urgent action is needed to protect much more of our land and inland waters," the report states.

'Lack of political will'

CPAWS releases a report every year on the state of Canada's parks, and this lack of progress to set aside spaces is a common theme.

"I think it's a lack of political will," says CPAWS national executive director Éric Hébert-Daly.

In 2010, Canada endorsed the goal of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to set aside 17 per cent of its land and fresh water by 2020. By 2014, half of the countries that signed that treaty had reached their goal.

Canada is still just a little more than halfway there.

"I think that there's a real problem in terms of being able to get governments to pay attention the way they need to, around this file. And it's partly because everyone's seen it as, oh it's nice to have, and not a priority," Hébert-Daly told CBC News.

"And I think now folks are starting to realize, well, nature is actually a priority. It is in fact key to our survival and if we do it right, Canadians can be leaders in the world rather than the laggards we currently are."

Sage grouse are among the wildlife at the Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. (Jerret Raffety/Rawlins Daily Times/The Associated Press)

Hébert-Daly sees signs of hope Canada can move up from the bottom of the rankings.

In March 2016, in a statement released during a state dinner in Washington, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau re-committed to at least 17 per cent protection by 2020, and to going substantially beyond this target.

This spring the federal and Alberta environment ministers co-chaired a steering committee to start setting aside land.

"There is a tremendous number of what I would call low-hanging fruit in the country in terms of places where if governments would just do a little push and there would be significantly new protected areas," Hébert-Daly said.

Species at risk

The report lists some areas where consultations have been done and all that's left is for a provincial government to designate the area off limits from industrial development.

One example is the South Okanagan-Similkameen region in British Columbia, which is home to 57 federally listed species at risk.

Two decades of work has been done to set aside this land.

Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation is a remote community on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. (Lutsel k'e Dene First Nation)

Local First Nations supported federal protection for the land in 2013, but it has not yet formally been made a national park reserve.

The report also points to land First Nations would like to see protected, which would help with the federal government's efforts at reconciliation.

One example is the Thaidene Nene, in the Northwest Territories, where the Lutsel k'e Dene First Nation wants to protect about 30,000 square kilometres of the northern landscape.

"Governments have been sort of slow in dragging their feet and not doing what needs to happen to respect that will," Hébert-Daly said.

He said there are also areas of the country where conservation is sliding such as New Brunswick, which he argues has no plan to protect additional spaces.

Another example he uses in the grasslands in southern Saskatchewan.

"The public pastures, which are an area that have been long protected … have just been essentially released to the province as private land they can now sell off," he said.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says the federal and Alberta governments are co-chairing a committee to set aside land for protection. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

A statement from Environment Minister Catherine McKenna's office says the steering committee co-chaired by Ottawa and Alberta is an effort to push governments to meet the 2020 target.

"It is also the first effort to move from a collection of protected areas to a connected network," it said. Linking protected spaces "will play an important role in contributing to the recovery of species at risk and in mitigating the impacts of climate change."

Under the previous government, Parks Canada saw its budget cut, in particular for scientific jobs that monitor the health of ecosystems in national parks.

Trudeau was asked, while visiting a park in Nova Scotia last week, what he would do to reinvest in parks across the country. 

"We recognize that under 10 years of a government that didn't do enough on the environment, that didn't prioritize the protection of our lakes and rivers, of our land and air, we have a lot of catching up to do," he told reporters.

CPAWS wants governments to go beyond the 2020 goal "so that we can actually do what nature needs in the long run," Hébert-Daly said.