In an idealized view, the government serves as a referee that ensures a balance is achieved among competing public interests. It does this by providing a forum for dialog among parties and by facilitating learning about potential solutions for resolving conflict. When conflict is unavoidable, the government takes control, making executive decisions that direct and constrain the actions of the parties involved in ways that best serve the broad public interest.

In practice, governments are not neutral arbitrators of the public interest (Wood et al. 2010). Political parties develop policy platforms that define where they stand on various value-laden issues and then place these platforms before the electorate. Individual conservation issues rarely have enough political profile to merit inclusion in such platforms, but general positions that impinge on conservation, such as being “pro-business” or “pro-environment,” are fairly common. In addition, governments have a responsibility for managing the economy and providing services. This means they have a direct stake in many resource management decisions. Finally, governments face many challenges that limit their ability to make effective decisions, as described by Wilson (1998):

Governments the world over muddle through. They try to plan, but mostly they react. They spend a fair bit of time grappling with states of full or partial paralysis brought on by uncertainty, inadequate information and capacity, internal divisions, and conflicting advice and pressures. They are frequently forced to wrestle with circumstances beyond their control, or with the unintended and unhappy consequences of decisions they have made. For the most part, they move incrementally. … Overwhelmed by the complexity of the problems they confront, decision makers lean heavily on pre-existing policy frameworks, adjusting only at the margins to deal with the distinctive features of new situations. Occasionally, when the planets are aligned, governments seize the opportunity to consolidate disparate policy tendencies into a coherent shift in policy direction. (pp. 334–335)

Because most conservation decision making occurs within the public sphere, our system of governance, messy as it is, is of central importance to the practice of conservation. Conservationists need to understand how the system operates and how decisions are made in order to be effective (Clark 2001).

It is useful to differentiate three basic forms of government decision making. Real-world decisions do not always fall neatly into these three categories, but understanding these basic forms provides a foundation for understanding the full range of complexity that exists:

1. Routine management. This form of decision making applies to routine operational decisions. Here, the scope of decision making is tightly circumscribed by existing laws, policies, and plans. The decision makers are typically managers working alone or in small groups. An example is the setting of annual harvest limits for game species.

2. Planning. Management issues that are not routine—especially problems in need of a solution—require a more complex form of decision making. Decisions of this type often take the form of plans and strategies and are best made using a structured decision-making framework (see Chapter 10). Stakeholders are often involved in this type of decision making, and there may or may not be some form of input from the general public. Governments retain ultimate control over decision making, sometimes at the bureaucratic level and sometimes at the ministerial or cabinet level. An example is the development of species recovery plans.

3. Policy development. The highest level of decision making is associated with the development of new policies and legislation. In contrast to planning, policy development rarely follows a well-defined, structured process. Policy dialog occurs in the public sphere and includes the media, a wide range of stakeholders, and the general public. Governments ostensibly control the process, but in practice may struggle to maintain autonomous action. The locus of government decision making generally resides with cabinet. An example is the development of the Species at Risk Act.

In the following sections, we will examine the policy development process in detail and then briefly review the current conservation policy landscape. We will defer discussion of routine management and planning to Chapter 10, where we will examine the mechanics of structured decision making in detail.

Policy Equilibrium

Studies of policy development reveal a nonlinear pattern of change (Baumgartner et al. 2014). Most of the time, policies are essentially locked in place, subject to only slow incremental adjustments. These long periods of stasis are interspersed with sporadic bursts of more rapid change. This unpredictable pattern is a hallmark of complex systems, in which interactions among many agents result in both positive and negative feedback processes and complex dynamics (Klijn 2008).

During the periods of policy stasis, the system is not quiescent. Like an ecological system in equilibrium, individual actors are highly active, yet the overall system remains relatively unchanged because of the stabilizing influence of negative feedback processes. We will examine these stabilizing processes first, then turn our attention to the causes and consequences of instability and rapid policy shifts.

When a policy system is in a stable state, issues tend to be captured within subsystems composed of small groups of bureaucratic specialists and key stakeholders working largely outside of the public eye (Lee 1993). The existence of these decentralized policy subsystems provides the overall system tremendous parallel processing capacity, making it possible for governments to respond to the myriad issues confronting it. These groups maintain attention on problem areas, even when the public, media, and elected officials are focused elsewhere. Moreover, they have the time and technical capacity needed for substantive learning and problem solving to take place (Lee 1993). These groups are a key entry point for conservation practitioners to contribute to the policy process.

A characteristic feature of policy subsystems is that substantive shifts in policy are difficult to achieve. Solutions to problems tend to be sought within the existing policy framework or through minor modifications of it. Processes that promote stability predominate and constitute barriers to change.

One reason the status quo tends to be maintained is that existing policies often represent compromise solutions to intractable conflicts. In such situations, policies reflect the balance of power that exists between the opposing sides of an issue. So long as this balance of power remains in place, substantive changes in policy are unlikely to occur. Consider the Species at Risk Act—a compromise solution to species protection that took years of acrimonious debate to achieve. Any attempt by environmentalists to strengthen the Act, or by industry to weaken it, would quickly result in the mobilization of opposition.

Another important factor promoting the status quo is the legacy of earlier decisions. Decisions made in the past often constrain what is possible in the present. This is referred to as path dependency (Ingram and Fraser 2006). For example, once a forest is allocated, a mill is built, and a local community is established, it is all but impossible to roll back the clock. Because of these legacies, strategies that would otherwise be ideal for achieving contemporary management objectives are often infeasible.

There are also several institutional factors that contribute to policy inertia (Lee 1993; Clark 2002):

  • Policy subsystems are largely populated by career bureaucrats who may find substantive change threatening because it challenges their worldview and values or because it has the potential to upend existing power and control structures.
  • Faced with changing conditions, bureaucrats may remain wedded to existing approaches if viable alternatives are not available or simply because they fear making mistakes in uncharted territory. Government reward structures provide little incentive for risk taking.
  • Policy subsystems cannot make significant changes to policy without the support of political leaders in cabinet. But cabinet can only focus on a small number of priority issues at any given time because of capacity constraints. This limits the overall pace of change in the system.
  • Governments tend to be most responsive to conflict, which means that “slow-creep” issues, such as habitat deterioration, tend to receive little attention until a crisis point is reached. This problem is exacerbated by the short planning horizons imposed by electoral cycles.
  • The development of new policy requires staff and financial resources that are usually difficult to obtain. Over the years, federal and provincial funding of resource management has been in decline.
  • Policy subsystems tend to monopolize specific areas of policy, and communication and coordination among these policy “silos” are often limited. Changes in policy direction within one subsystem may be perceived by others as an invasion of turf, and resisted. This is exacerbated by the fact that many policy subsystems work at cross-purposes with each other because of conflicting objectives (e.g., environmental protection vs. economic development).

There are also political barriers that impede the advancement of conservation (Wood et al. 2010). Governments, particularly at the provincial level, have a strong incentive to promote industrial development because the associated rents and taxes are needed to balance their budgets. Also, many politicians perceive employment levels and economic health as decisive election issues, overshadowing environmental issues (VanNijnatten 1999). The tendency to favour development can be exacerbated when governments are elected on the basis of narrowly-defined wedge issues and make little effort to govern in the broad public interest (Wood et al. 2010). The public interest concerning the environment can also be overridden as a result of industry influence, which occurs through campaign funding, intensive lobbying, and the interchange of personnel (Meghani and Kuzma 2011).

Policy Change

The periods of policy equilibrium are not entirely static. Public values change, the balance of power shifts among policy actors, new information and ideas come to light, policy subsystem participants turnover, and the consequences of unresolved problems accumulate. Policy subsystems deal with these changes mainly through incremental adjustments to existing policy. Like compound interest, these small adjustments accumulate over time. When viewed over long enough periods (decades), most policies can be seen to undergo a transformation, albeit in slow-motion.

Policies can also, on occasion, undergo episodes of rapid change. These episodes of relative instability result from positive feedback processes that are intrinsic to the system but manifest only under certain conditions (Baumgartner et al. 2014). For example, recall from Chapter 2 how the burning Cuyahoga River attracted national media attention in 1969, whereas earlier episodes of burning were completely ignored.

The basic mechanics of these positive feedback processes are well known; however, they are subject to complex interactions that make it all but impossible to predict specific outcomes (Klijn 2008). This means that policy breakthroughs cannot be engineered. The most that proponents of specific objectives can do is to push the system in the right direction and hope for the best.

For a given policy to undergo rapid transformation, it must first escape the gravitational pull of the policy subsystem it is normally bound to (Ingram and Fraser 2006; Baumgartner et al. 2014). Once on the macro political stage, other policy actors may engage, and major shifts in policy direction are possible (though not guaranteed). The emergence of a high-profile political champion can make a big difference. The question is: how and why does this shift to the macro political stage take place?

In most cases, political stalemates are broken by new ideas and by changes in power structures that lead to increased support for alternative perspectives (Ingram and Fraser 2006; Baumgartner et al. 2014). Ideas are important because they form the basis of policy images or frames—the shorthand narratives that define how we think about individual issues. For example, wolves as a menace vs. wolves as a symbol of wilderness. When existing frames are challenged by shifting values and new ways of thinking, policy upheaval becomes possible. Defenders of the status quo may find themselves holding solutions to the wrong problem. In addition, factual information may accumulate that challenges claims about the effectiveness of existing approaches. Finally, new and superior solutions to management issues may be developed through learning and debate during periods of policy stasis. In this case, defenders of the status quo may find themselves wielding ideas and concepts that are discredited or outmoded.

Although new ideas may challenge the status quo and weaken its intellectual foundation, this in itself does not guarantee that change will occur. Policy alternatives also need visibility and an expanding base of support if they are to attract attention on the macro political stage. Sometimes this is achieved through the development of new alliances among policy actors, as occurred during the War in the Woods (see Chapter 2). But what really tends to attract political attention is public engagement, and this usually requires involvement of the mass media (Fig. 3.12).

Newspaper collage
Fig. 3.12. Mass media is a major conduit for information about environmental issues.

The media not only disseminates information to the masses, it also filters and processes the information it provides. As a result, the media plays a critical role in setting political agendas. As noted by Soroka (2002, p. 265), “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling readers what to think about.” This is particularly true with environmental issues, which most people learn about through the media, rather than through direct experience.

Over the years, the media has served as the main catalyst for amplifying public concerns about environmental issues (Hansen 2010). However, the media should not be thought of as an environmental advocate. It simply reports on what it considers to be news, and conservationists quickly learn this rarely includes the issues they hope to draw attention to. There is a bias toward conflict, novelty, and topics that are currently in vogue.

Because of its critical role in agenda setting, the media is frequently the target of manipulation efforts. Environmentalists, in particular, have become adept at “playing the game,” using manufactured conflict (e.g., demonstrations, blockades, etc.) and other measures to draw attention to issues that would otherwise moulder in obscurity. Industry cannot respond in kind, but aided by public relations firms, it is skilled at reframing controversies in a more benign light. It cherry-picks success stories and uses feel-good advertisements to send the message that environmentalists are misinformed or prone to overreaction. As a result, public dialog about environmental issues is often reduced to political theatre involving simplified caricatures of what is really at stake. This being the case, government decision makers are often more interested in the amount of news coverage an issue gets than precisely what is being said (Mazur 1998).

An important feature of media coverage is the potential for positive feedback. A virtuous cycle can ensue where mass media coverage of an issue generates broad public concern, which in turn increases the likelihood of more media attention (Soroka 2002). Politicians, sensing a sea change, may then respond, further legitimizing the issue and raising its profile even higher. For issue proponents, this is the Holy Grail. The problem is that it is difficult to engineer; public interest cannot be forced. The issue must have cultural resonance, linking to people’s interests, concerns, and fears, all of which change over time (Hansen 2010). Moreover, issues interact with each other. Sometimes circumstances may propel an issue to the forefront, but more often issues must struggle for visibility among other competing themes. So timing is a critical and unpredictable factor.

In recent years, the media landscape has been changing, with the advent of social media and declining viewership of traditional news sources. The effects this will have on the development of conservation policy are not yet fully understood. On the one hand, conservationists are much less reliant on the mainstream media for disseminating their messages. On the other hand, the increase in media options has fragmented viewership, making it harder to reach a mass audience. Moreover, media fragmentation seems to have fostered societal “echo chambers,” and this hinders the development of a common understanding of issues, as required for informed public debate (Williams et al. 2015).

Arrival on the macro political stage is a prerequisite for substantive policy change; however, change is far from assured. Federal and provincial cabinets cannot deal with all of the demands they are confronted with, so issues must compete for attention (Baumgartner et al. 2014). Conflict, crisis, and high public profile tend to boost salience. Party ideology and campaign platforms also influence the prioritization of issues. Finally, political leaders view issues more holistically than issue proponents. Evidence of policy failure is itself usually insufficient to cause policy change (Ingram and Fraser 2006). Policy solutions must be available, and there must be a reasonable prospect of success. Assessments of political feasibility take into account the strength of opposing forces, the amount of change likely to be tolerated, and potential gains and losses in political capital. Consideration is also given to how potential changes in policy are likely to impact the rest of the system, especially in economic terms.

Ultimate outcomes are difficult to predict. Prominent issues that are not aligned with government interests and priorities may be ignored, delayed, or denied. Token offerings are sometimes made, containing only the appearance of change. However, governments do not have absolute control over the process. At this level, policymaking “is mostly about expediting or delaying the way that immutable forces unfold, or about nudging the resultant trajectories a few degrees to one side or another” (Wilson 1998, p. 344). The point is, important issues and ideas can rarely be repressed indefinitely. Political pressures build and must ultimately find release. The government’s hand may eventually be forced, or more likely, opposition parties may seize the issue as a political opportunity and move it forward once in power. For their part, proponents of the status quo will do whatever they can to prevent or slow change. Issues without sustained public interest and support may end up back within rigid policy subsystems.

The evolution of modern conservation policy has been typical of the processes described. Since it emerged as an issue in the 1970s, biodiversity conservation has been and continues to be a challenger of the status quo, resisted by various forces opposed to change. There have been periods of rapid change, in the early 1970s and early 1990s, but most of the time conservation policy has evolved through incremental adjustments within policy subsystems. We are currently in a period of policy stasis, reflecting a political stalemate between proponents of conservation and proponents of economic development. Notably, climate change has emerged as the dominant environmental issue of our time, leaving much less space on the macro political stage for other environmental concerns.

Current Conservation Policy

The Canadian Biodiversity Strategy—Canada’s response to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity—continues to serve as the foundation for conservation policy in Canada. The Strategy defines conservation as “the maintenance or sustainable use of the earth’s resources in order to maintain ecosystem, species and genetic diversity and the evolutionary and other processes that shape them” (EC 1995, p. 6). This is a biocentric rather than a utilitarian interpretation of conservation.

Since the release of the Strategy in 1995, an intergovernmental Biodiversity Working Group, chaired by Environment and Climate Change Canada, has worked to identify priorities, engage with Canadians about implementation, and report on progress. In 2015, the Biodiversity Working Group released the 2020 Biodiversity Goals & Targets for Canada (see Box 3.1, below), endorsed by all federal, provincial, and territorial governments (BWG 2015). This document emphasizes ecosystem approaches to conservation, including sustainable industrial practices and additional protected areas. Species at risk are included in the context of recovery planning but genetic diversity is not specifically mentioned.

As of 2023, the 2020 Biodiversity Goals & Targets for Canada statement continues to serve as the federal policy on biodiversity conservation. However, the target for habitat protection has increased to 30% of Canada’s lands and oceans by 2030.

To be clear, the goals and targets that have been articulated do not represent government commitments; they are statements of what we would like to accomplish. The document uses the term “aspirational” to describe them. Furthermore, most of the targets are actually strategies and not measurable outcomes. Policy statements like this provide direction, but they do not compel action or define accountability in the way that legislation does (AGC 2013). This is not to say that policy direction is unimportant. Government programs and budget allocations are generally linked to established policies. Policies also guide planning and routine management by defining the objectives that are to be accomplished.

Though all the provinces were involved in the development of the 2020 goals and targets, their support has been quite variable. Some provinces, notably Ontario and BC, have demonstrated a serious commitment to conservation through complementary biodiversity strategies of their own (BCMOE 2009; OMNR 2012). Uptake in most of the other provinces has been inconsistent. Support sometimes exists only within the ministry responsible for wildlife management. Without broad-based support within government and meaningful efforts at policy integration, conservation measures are difficult to implement. Consequently, despite national commitments, a large gulf remains between conservation intent and conservation practice, with substantial variability across the country.

In addition to formal biodiversity strategies, conservation policy exists under the rubric of forest management, and to a lesser extent, water management. As we saw in Chapter 2, following the War in the Woods, most provinces transitioned to a sustainable forest management paradigm that includes the maintenance of forest biodiversity as a central outcome. National leadership has been provided by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, which has developed a set of criteria and indicators of sustainability (see Chapter 7). Adoption and implementation of these criteria and indicators have again been quite variable among provinces and from company to company.

Another area of conservation policy applies to the management of species at risk. In jurisdictions where species at risk legislation exists, policy is used to provide the detail needed for implementation. In provinces lacking such legislation, or where legislation is rudimentary, policy provides the primary basis for managing species of risk.

Current Conservation Legislation

In contrast to conservation policy, which emphasizes ecosystem approaches, conservation legislation in Canada is focused on species. Canada’s flagship conservation law is the Species at Risk Act (SARA), passed by Parliament in 2002 (See Chapter 2). The purpose of SARA is to “prevent wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct, to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity, and to manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened” (GOC 2002, Sec. 6). SARA is one of the few federal laws (or Canadian environmental laws generally) that imposes strong, court-enforceable duties on government to protect wildlife and its habitat. Nevertheless, it is still a compromise solution subject to a variety of limitations. We will have a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of SARA in Chapter 6.

Provincial commitments to the protection of endangered species are again quite variable. Seven provinces and territories have dedicated species at risk legislation, whereas others manage species at risk under older wildlife legislation (SPI 2018). Ontario’s Endangered Species Act is the strongest and includes most of the strengths and weaknesses of SARA (Ecojustice 2012a). In other provinces, species at risk legislation is generally weaker than SARA, featuring greater political discretion and fewer firm commitments (SPI 2018). Adding to the general confusion over jurisdictional roles, the species at risk identified at the provincial level are not necessarily the same as those identified at the federal level. The provinces are also further behind than the federal government in terms of implementation.

No legislation comparable to SARA exists for conservation at the ecosystem scale. Instead, various aspects of biodiversity conservation have been incorporated, to a greater or lesser degree, into laws that serve a broader purpose. The most prominent example is the incorporation of biodiversity objectives into legislation governing forestry, which has occurred in some provinces but not all. For example, Ontario’s Crown Forest Sustainability Act (GOO 1994, Sec. 2.3) includes the following principle: “large, healthy, diverse and productive Crown forests and their associated ecological processes and biological diversity should be conserved.” The biodiversity component of such forestry laws tends to function much like high-level policy. The language used establishes intent and direction but is vague enough to preclude successful court challenge.

Other legislation that helps support conservation includes (1) laws governing land-use planning, water management, and sustainable development; (2) laws concerning environmental assessments; and (3) provincial laws related to wildlife and game management (Boyd 2003). Also important are laws supporting the establishment and management of protected areas, which come in many different forms (see Chapter 8). The federal National Parks Act is the most rigorous in Canada in terms of supporting conservation and includes explicit requirements for maintaining ecological integrity.

In conclusion, Canada’s conservation laws and policies do much to clarify intent but provide few definitive commitments. They represent society’s collective conservation aspirations, and this is crucial for guiding what we do as conservationists. However, they do not reflect the practical realities of conservation. As we will see in the case studies (Chapter 11), the true meaning of conservation is revealed when conflict occurs, requiring trade-off decisions to be made (McShane et al. 2011). At this point, policy commitments often fade into the background and the practical exigencies of local circumstances rise to the fore. This is something that conservation practitioners must be prepared for.

Box 3.1. Summary of the 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada

Goal A. By 2020, Canada’s lands and waters are planned and managed using an ecosystem approach to support biodiversity conservation outcomes at local, regional and national scales.

Target 1. At least 17 percent of terrestrial areas and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, are conserved through networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.

Target 2. Species that are secure remain secure, and populations of species at risk listed under federal law exhibit trends that are consistent with recovery strategies and management plans.

Target 3. Canada’s wetlands are conserved or enhanced to sustain their ecosystem services through retention, restoration and management activities.

Target 4. Biodiversity considerations are integrated into municipal planning.

Target 5. The ability of Canadian ecological systems to adapt to climate change is better understood, and priority adaptation measures are underway.

Goal B. By 2020, direct and indirect pressures as well as cumulative effects on biodiversity are reduced, and production and consumption of Canada’s biological resources are more sustainable.

Target 6. Continued progress is made on the sustainable management of Canada’s forests.

Target 7. Agricultural working landscapes provide a stable or improved level of biodiversity and habitat capacity.

Target 8. All aquaculture in Canada is managed under a science-based regime that promotes the sustainable use of aquatic resources in ways that conserve biodiversity.

Target 9. All fish and invertebrate stocks and aquatic plants are managed and harvested sustainably, legally and applying ecosystem-based approaches.

Target 10. Pollution levels in Canadian waters, including pollution from excess nutrients, are reduced or maintained at levels that support healthy aquatic ecosystems.

Target 11. Pathways of invasive alien species introductions are identified, and risk-based intervention or management plans are in place for priority pathways and species.

Target 12. Customary use by Indigenous peoples of biological resources is maintained, compatible with their conservation and sustainable use.

Target 13. Innovative mechanisms for fostering the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity are developed and applied.

Goal C. By 2020, Canadians have adequate and relevant information about biodiversity and ecosystem services to support conservation planning and decision-making.

Goal D. By 2020, Canadians are informed about the value of nature and more actively engaged in its stewardship.


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