Co-operation Is Better For The Environment

Commentary, Environment, Peter Holle

As Pierre Trudeau once observed, Canada is like a flea living next to an elephant.

Much of the public debate in Canada deals with the enormous influence of our American cousins. Elaborate legal provisions protect many industries from the colossus to the south, from chicken and egg production to magazine publishing.

For some reason, the last Parliament seemed all too eager to embrace a troubling American approach to wildlife preservation. A case in point is the Canadian Endangered Species Protection Act (CESPA), which died on the order paper with the election call.

The model for this approach was signed by Richard Nixon in 1973, and has caused no end of mischief in the United States. Here’s the latest example:

The American Endangered Species Act now lists 33 species of insects. One of these, the Delhi sands flower-loving fly, lives on only 200 acres in southern California, most of which are privately owned. Eight of these creatures were spotted buzzing around the building site for a new hospital in San Bernardino, just 24 hours before the start of construction. The county was forced to move the hospital, set aside ten acres as a fly preserve and monitor the fly’s progress for the federal government. The bill so far? US$4.5 million.

A federal official tried for more. She demanded that the county set aside the whole 68-acre site for the fly, and that traffic on an adjacent freeway be slowed to 15 mph during its breeding season. The Fish and Wildlife Service also insists that a congested street intersection nearby should not be rebuilt because it might "encroach" on the fly’s "migration corridor". No flies have ever been seen using the air space.

A couple of the same flies were noticed winging over a fiberboard plant going up in a depressed "enterprise zone" with high unemployment. The plant owners had to fork over $450,000 before they could proceed with construction. Now the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to set aside three fly preserves in the area, dispossessing the landowners and forcing their neighbours to pay a "development mitigation fee" to compensate the victims of expropriation.

Is this the system we want for Canada? Why are we even considering it, when a rational, home-grown solution is at hand?

The Province of Saskatchewan is an enthusiatic partner in the conservancy movement. In 1991, it established the Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre (SKCDC). This agency is a partnership between the Province and Nature Saskatchewan, an non-government conservation organization, with continuing support from the Nature Conservancy in the United States and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. It assembles data on species and habitat, and then works with landowners to promote biological diversity.

Crucial to the policy is one principle that is significantly missing from CESPA: "The rights of landowners and their role in the stewardship of land are recognized and their ongoing involvement is assured." The SKCDC regularly seeks the participation and advice of stakeholders and encourages landowners to capture the economic benefits of wetlands. In other words, it saves habitat with the tools of persuasion and rational appeals to self-interest, not force.

It operates without a regulatory document or law, yet it has assembled an impressive track record. One program, the Forage for Agriculture and Resource Management, started as a pilot project in 1993 and has expanded because it was successful. Under the project, 3,679 acres of permanent cover was seeded in low-lying areas and around wetlands. In the past, both Alberta and Manitoba have worked in tandem with private conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited, and enjoyed similarly positive results.

An opportunity to repair the flawed CESPA now awaits a new Parliament. Do we go with the American method to preserve wildlife, which is based on coercion, or follow the more effective Saskatchewan model of peaceful co-operation?