Carbon and Conservation

Why Our Elections Need to be about Hectares, Not Just Climate Change

Any other year I would have watched the election live, with an interactive webpage open on my laptop and CBC commentary interjecting from my television. Instead, I passed September 20th in the depths of Killarney Provincial Park, a day’s hard paddle from the nearest wi-fi network, with curtains of rain dancing in the wind beyond my tent flap, smacking the ground like hail. I didn’t learn the results until the next morning, the raging shores of David Lake giving me my first trickle of mobile signal in days, the storm pummeling my skull and thrashing my shoulders. I must have stood there thirty minutes before learning of the Liberal minority.

It’s fitting that I should be in Killarney at that moment, a haunting 48,500 hectares of abject wilderness in northern Ontario, because the conservation of wild spaces is, in my considered opinion, one of government’s most important functions, and stands among our Liberal government’s most ambitious promises. By 2025, they pledge, 25 per cent each of our nation’s land and water will be safe from the ravages of development or extraction, and by 2030, this will climb to 30 per cent.

In my lifetime, climate change has gone from a fringe crusade to an election issue, and September was the crown jewel, presenting in their various forms the strongest climate platforms in Canadian history, but conservation, specifically the protection of wild spaces, has not undergone the same ascension. Canadians at large understand at least the basics of carbon and climate, but the complexities of biodiversity loss are still beyond the majority of voters, and this worries me, because it’s not enough that we keep global temperatures within a livable margin. We need also to preserve the biosphere on which we wholeheartedly depend, and which is fast slipping between our fingers for reasons other than climate.

The relationship between land conservation and biodiversity is remarkably precise. Take any region and remove 90 per cent of its available habitat, by way of forestry, mining, development or whatever else, and you will reduce the species diversity of that region by roughly half. That is to say, if Canada were to protect only 13.2 per cent of its lands and waters (the actual figure at the end of 2020), then we can expect a significant minority of our native species (similar in size to the Liberal minority in the house of commons) to disappear in coming decades. If we were to protect 50 per cent of our lands and waters, however, we could reliably retain 85 per cent or more of our native species. Such is the strange math of biodiversity loss.

The issue, of course, is that government is very bad at land conservation, provincially and federally. In 1992, Prince Edward Island set the goal of protecting 7 per cent of the province and, since then, has only managed 4.4 per cent. After committing itself to protect a long list of wild spaces in 2013, successive Nova Scotian governments dragged their feet, leaving 150 properties to languish on that list to this day, and, in 2019, the reigning Liberals were caught trying to sell one of these properties – Owls Head Provincial Park – to a golf course developer. It’s one reason of many they lost re-election in August.

In 2015, the federal Liberals committed to protecting 17 per cent of Canada’s lands and inland waters, and 10 per cent of its oceans, by 2020, but instead managed 12.5 per cent and 13.8 per cent respectively, all without reproach from the electorate.

The conservation of wild spaces is notoriously difficult, given private interests, private ownership, and a scarcity of truly wild places. Achieving 30 per cent by 2030, therefore, will take more than just leadership. It will take citizens, and here I return to Killarney Provincial Park, a place protected not by politicians, but by painters.

On September 2nd, 1931, while paddling east along the Baie Fine fjord in Killarney’s southwest, Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson encountered a representative of the Spanish River Lumber Company, who informed Jackson that his ultimate destination – Trout Lake – was slated for logging that winter. The ancient White pines which Jackson intended to paint would soon face the axe, so he returned to Toronto with a fire in his belly and promptly recruited the Ontario Society of Artists in his crusade to prevent the cut, a crusade they eventually won.

A great deal of ink and paint was thereafter spilled on Killarney’s behalf. The imminent harvest of Trout Lake was prevented and the park itself was established in 1964, at the persistent urging of the painters who so adored the landscape. Trout Lake was renamed in honour of the Ontario Society of Artists (O.S.A. Lake today), joined by Artist Lake, A.Y. Jackson Lake and even Carmichael Lake, recognizing Franklin Carmichael, another Group of Seven member who raised his brush for Killarney.

This style of citizen conservation is in no way unusual. Point Pelee National Park in southern Ontario was established at the behest of birders. PEI National Park would have become an overpriced subdivision were it not for a band of scrappy locals who not only managed to establish the park, but went on to form the Island Nature Trust, conserving thousands of additional hectares across the province. In Nova Scotia, the St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association has, since 2016, fought ferociously to establish the Ingram River Wilderness Area on the province’s eastern shore, and only this summer secured their first 5,000 hectare parcel. Without groups like these, nothing would get done.

We need to conserve this nation with every bit the vigor we apply to climate change, and our government will not – in fact it cannot – succeed in either case without robust public engagement. So, while each of us reconciles our carbon footprint, with electric cars, vegan diets, heat pumps and solar panels, we must also identify those remaining patches of wilderness we’re willing to fight for, and insist they one day constitute our 30 per cent by 2030. Then we need to go find more.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author based in the Maritimes.