More Regulatory Woes For Rural Communities

Commentary, Environment, Robert Sopuck, Rural

After a long, bitter battle, federal agencies are set to embark on their latest “jihad” against rural communities and the property rights of farmers and ranchers. Cloaked in the dubious cloak of environmental protection, the soon-to-be-implemented Species at Risk Act (SARA) further centralizes control of our countryside in Ottawa.

SARA comes on the heels of a deeply unpopular program of habitat enforcement by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (FOC), which three years ago expanded its regulatory regime on the Prairies to meddle with a non-existent problem. SARA and the federal Fisheries Act are two of Canada’s most Draconian pieces of environmental legislation. Together they have the potential to stop rural development in its tracks.

Section 35 of the Fisheries Act reads, “No person shall carry on any work that results in the harmful alteration, disruption, or destruction of fish habitat.” The Act defines fish habitat as “spawning grounds and nursery, rearing, food supply and migration areas on which fish depend directly or indirectly in order to carry out their life processes.” A literal reading of this makes all our landscapes fish habitat, since rain falls everywhere and ends up in streams. Even manmade drainage systems are included. Consequently, the Act empowers FOC to regulate any and all human activities.

This may not mean much in Eastern cities, but enforcement is creating a regulatory nightmare across the fertile working belt of the southern Prairies. On March 11, for instance, the Regina Leader-Post reported that the “Fish Police” had charged three workers in Saskatchewan’s Highways Department with endangering habitat. If providing infrastructure like safe highways becomes a crime, Canada’s bread basket will grind to a halt.

A key provision in SARA reads, “No person shall damage or destroy the residence of…an endangered species.” The word “residence” implies that these creatures live in little houses. But mobile species like birds and butterflies range across wide swaths of territory in many different regions. The whooping crane migrates between Texas and northern Alberta. What makes up this bird’s “residence”? Who knows? In practice, all the people beneath its flight path are subject to the whims of bureaucrats who care little about their ability to make a living.

Critics of this approach face the inevitable question: “Don’t you care about the environment?” Nobody cares more than the people who depend on it. Everyone agrees that clean water, healthy fish populations and the conservation of endangered species are important values. The question is whether regulatory instruments like the Fisheries Act and SARA are the best means to ensure them. There are better, less expensive ways of accomplishing these goals.

These types of laws may have some applicability on Crown land, but on privately owned land they are counter-productive. SARA makes it a liability to have an endangered species on your property and hinders participation by landowners in conservation programs. If, by maintaining a wetland or providing feed, they encourage an endangered species to land, they attract the attention of intrusive regulators. Fear of the consequences makes such beneficent behaviour as rare as the species itself.

Since pioneering times, markets have encouraged farmers to increase production, and growing our food and fibre requires significant landscape alterations. The best way to guarantee that they leave room for public amenities like an endangered species is to alter these incentives. Successful conservancy efforts across North America have depended not on force, but on co-operation and the voluntary purchase of habitat.

The discharge of effluent and other “point sources” of pollution do lend themselves to regulation, and we do this regularly with enterprises like hog barns. But wilderness and species conservation is best done through incentives. Making the farm belt bear the total cost of protecting rare animals and plants will guarantee their extermination. Despite this, the federal government chose a regulatory route for SARA and FOC. The regulators themselves, all nice people, basically tell me, “Don’t worry about the wording of the Acts; our first priority is co-operation and stewardship.” Such assertions are utterly unconvincing. Words count, and the intent and meaning of these Acts will be quite clear to any judge who must try a case.

A comparison of the budgets devoted to stewardship with the amounts for regulation clearly illustrates the agencies’ skewed priorities. FOC’s budget has ballooned, with $20 million of “new money” annually and 120 new full-time staff in the three Prairie provinces. Similarly, the budget of the Canadian Wildlife Service went up by $45 million, but only $10 million goes to stewardship; the rest pays for studies, administration and enforcement. Beyond that, the balance of direct federal payouts for stewardship comes to only $300,000 per year, for the whole of Canada. That pays for one staffer and represents only 2% of the new money for regulation.

A more productive use of these resources would entail that Ottawa abandon the regulatory approach and give the money to existing provincial conservation and stewardship groups, who actually get things done. After the expenditure of $60 million dollars by FOC over the last three years, the Prairies have seen precious little in the way of environmental improvement. When I think about what that money could have accomplished on the ground in terms of effective remedies, FOC’s priorities look like the gun control program. Lots of money spent for zero result.

Look at the experience with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States. A recent report by the Property and Environment Research Centre estimated that the annual federal expenditure by the United States government to enforce ESA compliance totals $3 billion. It notes that, “As of February, 1260 species were officially threatened or endangered but only a dozen species have been recovered and removed from the lists since [the Act] was created 30 years ago…”

It’s a pity that Canada is now going down the same road. If we want to protect our fish and endangered species, there are far better ways to do it.