Regional Variations

The Agricultural South

Protected area planning varies among regions because of differences in resource potential and social context. The Agricultural South (Fig. 5.5) consists mostly of privately owned land that has been converted to agricultural use. Remaining patches of native habitat are generally small and widely scattered, except within rangelands in the driest parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Approximately 4% of this region has been protected, with a strong bias to dry, unproductive rangelands (ECCC 2022).

Governments are reluctant to infringe on private property rights, so most protected area initiatives in the Agricultural South involve voluntary land purchases, land donations, and conservation easements. In a conservation easement, a landowner continues to own the land but agrees to permanent usage restrictions that are designed to maintain the ecological integrity of the site in perpetuity (Good and Michalsky 2008). The federal government encourages donations and easements through tax credits, administered under its Ecological Gifts Program. Protection can also be achieved through conservation offsets (see Box 8.5), though the necessary frameworks are only now being developed in Canada.

Box 8.5. Conservation Offsets

A conservation offset program is a method for achieving no net loss of habitat in the face of industrial development. The idea is to have resource companies offset unavoidable habitat damage in areas under development with habitat restoration in other areas. For example, an oil and gas company that damages wetlands in the course of operations might seek agricultural landowners willing to restore wetlands on their farms in exchange for monetary compensation. This approach works best in agricultural settings, where opportunities for restoration are readily identified. In principle, the approach could also be applied to public lands by channelling funding from resource companies to government-led restoration programs. However, the matching aspect of the offset concept is difficult to apply in this case.

A limitation of the offset concept is that true habitat equivalency is difficult to achieve. In most cases, restoration efforts can only partially make up for the loss of natural habitat. Moreover, offsets are only intended to last as long as the period of disturbance, so there is no guarantee that the restoration will be maintained. Efforts to avoid and directly mitigate disturbances are therefore preferable to offsets. Conservation offset programs are also challenging to administer. Application frameworks in Canada are rudimentary at present (Noga and Adamowicz 2014).

In recent decades, most protected area programs in the Agricultural South have been led by conservation groups, supported by government, corporate, and public funding. These protected area initiatives are characterized by direct negotiations between conservation groups and individual landowners about specific parcels of land.

The Natural Areas Conservation Program, funded by the federal government and implemented by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and other partners, has been the largest protected area initiative on private lands in Canada in recent years. It illustrates the pace of protection currently possible. Over a ten-year period (2007–2017), the federal government allocated $300 million to the program. Other donors provided matching funds and land donations totalling $580 million. This resulted in the protection of 4,300 km2 of habitat across the country (NCC 2017). To put this in perspective, 4,300 km2 is considerably less than the area of greater Toronto.

The basic aim of protected area planning in the Agricultural South is still centred on identifying optimal sites for protection. However, comprehensive ecosystem representation is difficult to achieve because of the agricultural conversion and urban development that has occurred, and because of constraints on land acquisition. This makes formal reserve design impractical. Instead, protection efforts tend to be opportunistic, guided by simple landscape scoring systems.

In a scoring system, the planning area is divided into planning units and the attributes of each cell are tabulated (Riley et al. 2007). Common attributes include the degree of intactness, habitat value for species at risk, connectivity, vulnerability to degradation, and the cost of acquisition. Instead of using planning software to generate potential reserve designs, the attributes of each planning unit are combined into a composite score reflecting its value to conservation. The results are displayed as a map of conservation priorities which is used to guide land acquisitions.

The benefit of the scoring approach is that the maps are relatively easy to produce. The main shortcoming of this approach is it does not ensure that individual features are represented in alternative design configurations. Nor is it possible to explore trade-offs among designs. Because of these deficiencies, the scoring approach should only be used where systematic conservation planning is not feasible.

An added dimension to conservation planning in the Agricultural South is that protection is added incrementally, as funding becomes available and as willing sellers and donors are identified. This makes planning an ongoing process (Meir et al. 2004). Once a parcel of land has been protected it may serve as the nucleus for an expanding reserve, changing the conservation importance of surrounding parcels. Opportunities may also arise to connect parcels, using restoration if necessary, once sites in reasonable proximity to each other have been protected.

The Industrial Forest

The Industrial Forest (Fig. 5.5) consists mostly of public lands that have been allocated to resource companies engaged in forestry, oil and gas development, and mining. The ecosystems here are no longer pristine, and access development is extensive; however, most ecosystem components and processes remain in place. Approximately 12% of the Industrial Forest has been protected to date (ECCC 2022), with much of this protection biased toward lands of low resource value.

Provincial governments have primary jurisdiction over most lands in the Industrial Forest, so they oversee most protected area planning in this region. The federal government is engaged to a lesser extent through its ongoing efforts to establish national parks. The timing of active planning is irregular, and efforts are not coordinated among provinces. As previously noted, the tipping point to action is highly dependent on public interest and support.

The defining feature of protected area planning in the Industrial Forest is the dynamic that exists between conservation groups, promoting protection, and the resource sector, promoting development. Indigenous communities are also involved, though their role is not as prominent as it is in the Far North. In the Industrial Forest, Indigenous communities are likely to be treated as stakeholders, rather than co-management partners, though there are exceptions. Other common stakeholders include local communities, municipal governments, and various user groups (e.g., trappers, outfitters, tourism operators, and hunting and angling groups).

Conservation planning methods in the Industrial Forest are highly varied. Systematic conservation planning is widely applied, though the process tends to be interpreted differently in each application. As with the ecosystem management framework we discussed in the previous chapter, core elements are often omitted in practice. Furthermore, not all protected area initiatives seek to achieve comprehensive representation. Some initiatives are designed to protect specific sites of high conservation value.

The Far North

The Far North (Fig. 5.5) is comprised of public lands that, for the most part, remain ecologically intact. Industrial activity is limited to widely scattered mining installations and some localized oil and gas development. To date, approximately 14% of this region has been protected (ECCC 2022).

In the past, the planning and establishment of parks in the Far North was led by the federal government. Many of the large national parks and wildlife refuges that exist in this region are the result of these efforts. Over the years, the responsibility for land management has shifted to the territorial governments and Indigenous communities, though the federal government remains involved.

An important driver of protected area establishment in recent years has been land-use planning related to land claim settlements. An example is the Peel Watershed land-use plan, which covers approximately 68,000 km2 in the northern Yukon (PWPC 2011). The plan was completed in 2011 and it placed a priority on “protecting and conserving ecological and heritage resources and maintaining wilderness character” (PWPC 2011, p. vii). Eighty percent of the planning area was designated as a conservation area and 20% was designated for integrated resource management.

The Peel land-use plan was prepared by an independent planning commission, as per the terms of a land claim agreement signed in 1993 (SCC 2017b). The Yukon government’s reaction to the commission’s plan was mostly negative. It argued that the plan was too restrictive and it unilaterally created a new plan which shifted the balance of protection to 71% industrial and 29% protected. In response, a court case was initiated by a coalition of local First Nations and conservation groups. The case was eventually referred to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in 2017 that the Yukon government could not disregard a planning process it had agreed to under the land claim agreement (SCC 2017b). The commission’s original land-use plan is now going forward to final consultations.

The lesson from the Peel Watershed is that, while much of the Far North remains relatively pristine, protection is still far from easy. As in other parts of Canada, northern governments actively pursue industrial development to provide jobs and tax revenue. This provides the resource industry with considerable political influence, since mining and oil production are often the only source of private sector employment and investment.

Further industrial development in the Far North appears inevitable over the long term, though the pace will be constrained by high transportation costs and the absence of infrastructure. For example, through its Plan Nord, Quebec plans to invest almost $2 billion on infrastructure development and other steps to attract new mining projects to the far north of the province (GOQ 2015).

Despite the challenges that exist, the Far North still presents the best opportunity in Canada for establishing additional large terrestrial protected areas. Ontario and Quebec are both acting proactively and have set a 50% protection target in their current northern planning programs (OMNRF 2015; GOQ 2015). Government-led protected area initiatives in the territories are much less ambitious at present. But in these regions, the potential exists for large-scale Indigenous-led initiatives, as exemplified by the Peel Watershed land-use plan.

Marine Environments

Efforts to develop a network of marine protected areas began as a response to the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy in 1995 (EC 1995). A national framework was released in 2011 to provide planning guidance (GOC 2011b). More recently, the federal government has committed to protecting 30% of Canada’s coastal and marine areas, in accordance with the target established under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (GOC 2022b).

The federal government has been leading the planning efforts, reflecting its jurisdiction over marine waters under the Oceans Act and other legislation. Provincial and territorial governments have been partners in the process and there has been considerable outreach to Indigenous communities and other stakeholders.

Thirteen marine bioregions have been defined and these provide the basis for planning (GOC 2011b). Because of their size, the Great Lakes are included as one of these bioregions, even though they contain fresh water. The reserve network is intended to provide representation of each of these bioregions, emphasizing sites with high ecological significance.

The proportion of marine territory currently protected is 9.1% (524,000 km2; ECCC 2022). Most of the sites were designated in the last five years. An additional 4.8% of marine territory has been designated as marine refuges where certain industrial activities and harvesting of biological resources are allowed as long as conservation goals are met (ECCC 2022).

The selection and management of marine protected areas is subject to the same trade-offs we discussed in the context of terrestrial reserves. The primary challenge is finding an appropriate balance between protection and economic development. A national advisory panel, commissioned by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, recommended that industrial activities, such as bottom trawling, oil and gas development, and mining be prohibited within all marine protected areas (Bujold et al. 2018). However, the door to development was left open in marine refuges, where industrial activities are allowed if effectively mitigated. Currently, marine refuges account for more than a third of the area that the federal government is counting toward its 30% protection target, and more are planned.

In conclusion, the marine protected area initiative marks a new phase in marine conservation. Much will depend on the total area afforded full protection (vs. refuges) and the locations selected for protection. The marine refuge concept holds many parallels to the sustainable forest management paradigm. There is likely to be improved conservation compared to conventional management, but refuges are not an alternative to true protected areas.

Other Variations

There are also forms of protected area planning that are not based on the systematic representation of biodiversity. These approaches have limited application, but conservation practitioners should be aware of them. A prominent example is the use of biodiversity hotspots to guide site selection. Hotspots are areas of particularly high species richness or endemism (Myers et al. 2000). This approach is most commonly employed at the global scale by international conservation organizations and their donors seeking to direct their limited resources to regions that provide the greatest conservation benefit (a form of conservation triage).

Species richness in Canada is relatively low compared to many other parts of the world, so we have no areas rated as globally significant hotspots (Fig. 8.8). However, there are many sites across the country that have long been recognized as having special conservation significance at the regional scale. In most cases, these sites stand out because of their unique characteristics, not because they have higher levels of species richness than other areas. They are best treated as fine-filter elements under a systematic conservation planning framework.

Map of global hotspots
Fig. 8.8. The distribution of global biodiversity hotspots, adapted from Myers et al. 2000. Hotspots are often used by international organizations for allocating conservation effort. At the national scale, biodiversity conservation is best achieved using a systematic conservation planning approach, ensuring that each country’s full complement of native species receives protection. Map credit: Ninjatacoshell.

Another approach to protected area planning involves “floating reserves” (Rayfield et al. 2008). This approach is usually encountered in the context of forestry operations, where it is promoted as a way of achieving conservation objectives while minimizing economic impacts (Gurmendi 2004). The idea is to protect a constant proportion of the land base using reserves that shift location over time. This approach provides industry with eventual access to the full land base.

The floating reserve concept has received little support as a replacement for permanent protected areas and systematic conservation planning (Rayfield et al. 2008). Over time, it requires reserves with a high level of ecological integrity to be replaced with sites that have been subjected to industrial development. No consideration is given to the decline in condition that inevitably accompanies resource extraction and associated infrastructure development. The claim of protection is therefore illusory.

Where floating reserves do have merit is in the protection of old-growth forest (and dependent species). In regions subject to large wildfires, the location of old-growth stands changes over time, so static reserves may not provide adequate protection. Additional protection can be achieved by setting explicit targets for old-growth retention in forest management plans and achieving these targets using a system of floating old-growth reserves (Kneeshaw and Gauthier 2003). In such a system, old-growth reserves that are harvested or burned are continually replaced by new reserves elsewhere on the landscape. This requires long-term, spatially-explicit harvest planning, and periodic replanning, to ensure that bottlenecks in the supply of old-growth do not occur over time.


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