Toronto Star

Conserve it or lose it


As the year turns and the federal government begins to prepare its next budget, Bill Morneau will inevitably be inundated with competing pleas from every corner. The compelling letter signed by 116 parliament­arians calling on the finance minister to find room for a historic investment in conserving Canadian nature should not get lost in the pile.

Endorsed by MPs of every political stripe, the letter was written by William Amos, a Liberal parliament­arian and former environmen­tal lawyer. But though it originates from within the governing party, it quietly suggests much more must be done if the prime minister is going to make good on his stated commitment to conservati­on.

Canada has fallen behind. In 2010, the Harper government signed onto the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, committing to protect at least 17 per cent of our land and freshwater by 2020. At that time, only 9.6 per cent of these areas were protected. Today, more than seven years later and just two years out from our deadline, we have hardly made any progress.

The stark consequenc­es of our failure to conserve have been well-documented in recent years by environmen­tal groups concerned that if government doesn’t act quickly, the damage will be irreversib­le. A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, for instance, chronicled a startling loss of Canadian biodiversi­ty. A survey of 903 Canadian species found that around half have experience­d serious population decline over the last four decades.

Ottawa’s efforts to reverse this decline have been grossly inadequate. “The federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) has faltered in its mission to protect Canada’s most beleaguere­d wildlife,” the report concluded. Between 1970 and 2014, the 87 species now supposedly protected under the act saw their population­s fall overall by 63 per cent. And since SARA was enacted in 2002, the average rate of decline has actually increased. The right whale is nearly gone; the bobolink and little brown bat are in trouble. Some people alive today may live to see a Canada without caribou. We have simply not made the necessary investment­s in habitat conservati­on.

The case for investment is not simply a moral one. Amos et al. point out that protected areas are a major economic driver, particular­ly in rural communitie­s. For every dollar spent by parks agencies, six dollars are returned to Canada’s GDP. Moreover, the vast majority of Canadians say they want to see government action now and are willing to pay for it. Amos cites a poll from last November that found some 87 per cent of Canadians support the UN goals — and four out of five want to see increased federal funding to meet them.

The $1.4-billion investment now being floated would take a major chunk out of the budget and must of course be balanced against competing priorities. But it should not be quickly dismissed. The need for investment is clear. As the Star has argued before, by virtue of our vast wilderness and diverse wildlife, our three oceans and enormous freshwater holdings, Canada has a special obligation to conserve. The longer we put off paying the price the less there will be to protect.

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