Audit finds ‘wide gap’ between federal conservation talk and action

OTTAWA – A massive audit of federal conservation policies paints a picture of neglect and disinterest when it comes to Canada’s natural heritage.

The nine-chapter study by Neil Maxwell, the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, repeatedly points to a lack of strategies, plans and resources required to maintain or improve everything from basic biodiversity and species at risk to the national parks.

“I see a wide gap between the government’s commitments and the results achieved,” Maxwell writes in the preface to the report.

The commissioner’s talk-versus-action concern was graphically illustrated shortly after the audits were tabled Tuesday morning in the House of Commons, when Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq issued a response that ignored the report’s clear thrust.

“As an Arctic nation with rich and unique biodiversity truly distinct to the North, Canada continues to strengthen its environmental protection and conservation, leading to healthy ecosystems that will ultimately benefit the economy and support the health of Canadians,” Aglukkaq was quoted saying in a release.

The Conservative government has made a political virtue of creating new national parks and protected wildlife areas, but the audits tabled in Parliament make the government rhetoric ring hollow.

Canada doesn’t have a basic strategy to meet its international 2020 promises under a United Nations treaty on biodiversity, so it hasn’t even begun to identify what actions need to be taken.

“Without a clear and specific definition of how Environment Canada sees its role and what it wants to achieve as Canada’s national focal point, it will be difficult to determine what the department plans to achieve or what resources it will require,” the audit says.

That’s a nice way of saying Canada’s 2020 biodiversity promise is dead in the water.

The Conservative government has shown little concern that Canada is nowhere near meeting another of its international promises, the 2020 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels.

But the Harper government has put considerable political stock into promoting Canada’s national parks and protected areas and on that front the commissioner’s audit may sting.

Management plans for some 12.4 million hectares of designated national wildlife area date on average from 1992, says the audit. It found half a dozen wildlife areas and 22 migratory bird sanctuaries that should have been removed from the list because they no longer meet the criteria.

At Canada’s national parks, funding for “heritage resources conservation” — effectively the natural beauty of the parks — decreased by 15 per cent last year compared with the preceding six years, “with further reductions planned as part of decisions flowing from the 2012 federal budget.”

Parks Canada told auditors it had reduced budgets and staff on conservation even before the latest round of cuts.

“The adjustments reallocate fewer resources across the agency’s various responsibilities for maintaining or restoring ecological integrity; furthermore, the agency provided no quantitative analysis to show that these actions are sufficient to address the resource reductions,” says the report.

Fifteen of the 42 national parks lack a state-of-the-park report to use as a baseline for maintaining or restoring ecological integrity. And while new monitoring guidelines have been put in place, not one of nine parks examined by the auditors had a scientifically credible monitoring system.

One bright spot in the audit: the commissioner says a North American strategy on protecting waterfowl is working and helps illustrate what can be done if there is political will to preserve and restore the environment.

Sport hunters are an important Conservative constituency, but the audit found conservation plans for other bird species are inadequate.

The audit found gaps in bird monitoring programs, a lack of objectives for the habitat that is monitored, and little work on a plan to monitor and avoid the destruction of bird habitat by forestry, mining and agriculture.

Maxwell prefaced his report by making the economic case for protection of Canada’s “natural heritage.”

“The approval processes currently under way for large oil and gas pipelines in North America have shown that widespread acceptance of resource development depends, in part, on due consideration for protecting nature,” Maxwell wrote. “Our trading partners see Canada as a steward of globally significant resources.

“Canada’s success as a trading partner depends on continued leadership in meeting international expectations for environmental protection, expectations that are increasingly enshrined in international trade agreements.”

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