Alberta Shows it is Serious About Protecting Natural Areas

This Op-Ed originally published in the Edmonton Journal on March 13, 2016
Photo: Karen Ronson

Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips made a major announcement in late February that went largely unnoticed. Working together, she said, Alberta can achieve 17 per cent protection for our natural landscapes by 2020.

This is a big deal. It shows that the province is committed to being an environmental leader in Canada.

In fact, by supporting Canada in achieving its international commitment to protect 17 per cent of terrestrial landscapes and inland waters by 2020, the announcement makes history: Alberta is the first province in Canada to publicly commit to this goal.

The 17 per cent goal makes up part of Canada’s international commitments under the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, which Canada ratified in 1992. Incorporated into the Canadian biodiversity strategy, the 17 per cent goal is something all provinces are supposed to work toward. However, while provinces such as Ontario have written about the 17 per cent goal in their own biodiversity strategies, Alberta is the first province to publicly announce that it has the intention of actually achieving that level of protection.

 Parks and protected areas are historically important for Alberta — both ecologically and economically. Albertans value and take pride in the natural history of their province. Alberta’s existing protected areas have proven time and again to be safe havens for struggling wildlife (historically, bison and elk) and safeguards for the province’s majestic wilderness, from plains to mountains to boreal forest.
Albertans spend their weekends hiking, camping and enjoying parks, with 8.5 million visits annually. Millions of out-of-province tourists stream through the gates of Jasper and Banff national parks each year to do the same. Parks also provide important ecosystem services for the province, from air and water filtration to climate change mitigation through carbon storage.

Alberta is currently 12.4 per cent protected, but two-thirds of this is within national parks, meaning that the province has only directly protected 4.2 per cent of its territory.

The majority of provincial parks are made up of an area less than 10 square kilometres, and do not represent all of Alberta’s natural sub-regions. Even after all the protected areas announced during the Lower Athabasca regional plan and the South Saskatchewan regional plan are established, 13 of the province’s 21 natural sub-regions will fall short of the 17 per cent goal, while five sub-regions will still have less than one per cent protection. So, Alberta has a long way to go toward achieving its goal.

Not all parks and protected areas are created equal. To meaningfully achieve 17 per cent protection, natural areas need to be free from further habitat disturbance and degradation. Any protected area that allows surface industrial disturbance from oil and gas activity, forestry or mining, unmanaged and irresponsible recreational activity, and inappropriate commercial development will not make the cut. The idea is to protect our province’s biodiversity from any further decline.

The recent announcement of protection of the Castle Wilderness Area in southwestern Alberta is a fantastic first step toward achieving 17 per cent protection. There are other important opportunities in our grasslands and parkland, across the Eastern Slopes, and in our boreal forest.

Alberta’s forested headwaters in the Bighorn Backcountry of the North Saskatchewan region, for example, are desperate for greater protection. This area, if protected, would ensure clean, secure drinking water for generations of Albertans, protect grizzly bear populations and provide refuge for declining numbers of native fishes.

The 17 per cent goal is an important next step for provincial conservation, but not an end point. It is a politically negotiated target, not a scientifically supported one. There is a growing scientific consensus that, to truly protect our wildlife and maintain important ecological processes, we need to protect at least 50 per cent of our landscapes.

This is a tall order, but with its recent announcement, the province has shown that it is committed to keeping Alberta wild, for the benefit of both current and future Albertans, for all time.

Alison Ronson is executive director of CPAWS (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) Northern Alberta. 

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