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Conservation, Parks Canada, and the Federal Budget

Over the past week we’ve been working to clarify what the federal budget provides for nature conservation.  After conversations with federal officials we have a clearer idea, and some good news to share! We also have a few cautionary notes.

First the good news. In first reading the budget our Forest Program Director, Florence Daviet, was struck by one line she thought might hold promise -- a new cost-shared Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund for built and natural, large-scale infrastructure projects supporting mitigation of natural disasters and extreme weather events, and climate resilience.  Florence has been involved in conversations with Infrastructure Canada, as part of the Green Budget Coalition, encouraging them to incorporate “natural infrastructure” solutions like protecting or restoring forests and wetlands into their climate change adaptation and infrastructure plans.  A follow up conversation post-budget confirmed that the federal government listened, and is looking at including natural infrastructure projects in this fund, which will have hundreds of millions of dollars starting in 2018. They are also open to supporting natural infrastructure projects through federal-provincial bilateral agreements, which opens the door for provinces, municipalities, indigenous people and NGOs to consider natural solutions as part of their climate resilience and infrastructure planning. We’re already exploring ideas with a few First Nation communities for how this fund might support the protection of headwater forests to prevent flooding, increase food security for their community, reduce invasive species and reduce greenhouse gases, for example.  Much more work to do on this, so stay tuned. 

We were also pleased to see an investment of some initial funding for a national Indigenous Guardians program, building on successful existing programs like the Haida Watchmen on Haida Gwaii, and the Nihatni Dene guardian program in Thaidene Nene, NWT.  These programs support Indigenous peoples on the land, conducting stewardship, environmental monitoring and cultural educational programs, while maintaining cultural traditions and connections.

Also of note, the budget included increased funding to combat aquatic invasive species.

On a more cautious note, the budget contained an injection of $364 million over two years for Parks Canada “to continue its management of national parks, national marine conservation areas and national historic sites”.  We did some digging on this one and confirmed that the funding is for asset management and infrastructure, not for new parks or for restoring conservation and science funding.  Yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke about this particular investment while visiting the Thousand Islands National Park in Ontario.

CPAWS is obviously supportive of ensuring that essential visitor infrastructure in our parks is maintained in good condition. None of us want to see the public endangered as a result of crumbling roads and bridges. We do, however, have some thoughts on how this money should be allocated and for what purposes.

1. It is our hope, and will be our preoccupation in the coming two years, that these funds are used to maintain and update existing infrastructure, not to drive the expansion of new, unnecessary infrastructure in our parks.
2. We expect that the government’s interest in raising the bar on the state of infrastructure to a healthy level will be paralleled with equivalent investments to bring ecosystems to a good state of health.  Currently almost half of national park ecosystems are in fair or poor condition.
3. It would be valuable to know how much of this investment is for national parks and how much is for historic sites and canals, since heritage buildings and canal assets are huge components of Parks Canada’s infrastructure maintenance deficit.

Our caution is based on recent experience.  Projects like Parks Canada’s proposal to build an $86 million new paved bike corridor through endangered caribou herd and grizzly bear habitat in Jasper is an example of new infrastructure development taking priority over ecological integrity.  It was just a few years ago that caribou conservation programs were cancelled because of a lack of funding, and we’ve yet to see a reinvestment in the Agency’s science and conservation programs after they were cut by one third by the former federal government.  We’ll be looking for this investment in conservation in the coming year.

Although there was no funding for this, it was great to see both the budget and yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister reiterate the government’s promise to expand Canada’s terrestrial protected areas system from 10% protection to at least 17% by 2020, as per our international commitment. The federal, provincial and territorial governments are already discussing how to collaborate to get there, working with Indigenous peoples, NGO’s and other partners and we’re looking forward to being involved.  We will need a coordinated, ambitious effort over the next few years to achieve these 2020 targets and to set the stage for the more ambitious work needed beyond 2020 to protect what nature needs.  The House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainability released a report on protected areas just last Friday with sweeping recommendations that will help guide this work.

We have an enormous opportunity over the next few years to expand Canada’s protected area networks on land and sea, to set the stage for larger scale protection beyond 2020, and to renew the focus on nature conservation and nature-focused visitor experiences in our national parks.  This is fundamental to securing a healthy environment and a healthy economy in Canada. By this time next year we hope to see a big investment to help make this happen.