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What is needed to protect our wild lands, waters, and animals?

How many people know the truth about what is needed to maintain our wild animals, plants, clean air, clean water, and other values that keep us humans alive and healthy?

Still not enough, apparently, as the last global protected areas target that most countries of the world signed on to in 2010 (the so-called Aichi target) was to protect 17% of their land area by 2020.

Moving from the current level of 10% protection of Canada’s landscape to 17% protection by 2020 would be a solid next step, and one that Canadian governments have now committed to.  But this will not be nearly enough to conserve nature in the long run. Scientists around the world are coming to a mass consensus that this goal must be radically raised. In fact, it is clear that protecting only 17% of our planet and allowing the rest to be developed would result in massive numbers of species going extinct and massive costs to try to clean the air and water we humans need to sustain us. 

A new paper released last month (Friday, April 18, 2017) in BioScience highlights the science behind the need to protect at least half of each ecoregion to have the highest probability of maintaining its biodiversity, its ability to keep the world’s air and water clean and healthy, and its functionality to slow climate change and buffer its impacts.

The study shows that, despite what some skeptics may suggest, in much of the world it is still possible to increase the area of protected lands to cover at least half of the ecoregional landscape. Other areas will require stepped up efforts to save the remnants of surviving habitats while working diligently to restore those that have been lost and degraded. 

The Boreal Forest and Arctic regions of Canada and Alaska are parts of the world where protecting at least half is not only still possible but where there are still significant opportunities to do so.

One of the most hopeful elements of this hopeful global vision is the leadership of Indigenous governments in planning for and managing their ancestral lands. Across Canada Indigenous peoples are showing the most forward-thinking and ground-breaking examples of large-scale conservation in action.

For example, in the Yukon, the Peel River Watershed Planning Commission, which includes representation from all First Nations in the area, developed a plan that would protect 80% of the Peel River Watershed - an area of 53,789 square kilometres (13 million acres). The fate of this plan is currently being decided by the Supreme Court of Canada. The Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation of the East Arm of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories has worked for decades to protect the heart of their homeland  - a vast area called Thaidene Nene: the Land of the Ancestors. They are very close to finalizing the establishment of adjacent national and territorial parks that they will co-manage with the federal and territorial governments, and which will protect about 26,000 square kilometres (6.4 million acres) of boreal forest and tundra. Also in the Northwest Territories, the Dehcho First Nations have completed a land use plan for their traditional territory which calls for protection of more than half of the landscape - an area of over 100,000 square kilometres (24.7 million acres). Within the proposed Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site of Manitoba and Ontario, the Poplar River First Nation land-use plan placed 90% of its traditional territory in conservation areas encompassing over 8,000 square kilometres (two million acres).  In Labrador, the Innu Nation’s Forest Ecosystem Strategy Plan calls for over 50% of the 71,000 square kilometre agreement area to be protected for ecological or cultural values - an area of 35,000 square kilometres (8.6 million acres).

Indigenous governments are crafting leading edge and well-balanced land use plans that provide a blueprint for reaching the quantum of land conservation that is needed for our world and its inhabitants to survive. Provincial, territorial and federal governments across Canada should support this work by increasing funding for Indigenous governments and communities to complete land-use plans for their traditional territories and by accepting and supporting the results of those plans.

Indigenous governments are also providing for the care and stewardship of conservation lands as has been demonstrated in a growing number of Indigenous ranger or guardians programs in Canada, Australia, and many other parts of the world. Recently, Canada’s federal government allocated $25 million to create more Indigenous guardians programs, a move that should add further life to an exciting and successful conservation initiative. Provincial and territorial governments should also bring more financial resources to the support of Indigenous guardians programs across Canada.

In a world flooded with bad news about the environment and the erosion of biodiversity, the results of this study in BioScience provide a ray of hope that we humans still have ample opportunities to raise the bar for habitat conservation to a level that could maintain our animals and plants, clean air and water, and serve as a buffer against climate change. Canada’s Boreal Forest and Arctic regions, in particular, are among the most wild and intact regions left on our planet. Let’s hope that our leaders see this last of our generation opportunity and take the steps to show global leadership in raising the conservation bar for generations to come.