Thank you, and good morning. In your sweep across Canada coming from the west, thank you for bringing rain. It brings joy to our prairie souls.
Canada has some core natural resources, such as biodiversity, fresh water, fertile soil, breathable air, and a comparatively benign climate, which have no real substitutes. The suite of ecological goods and services, or natural capital, underpins the economy and society of this nation, although there is a significant reliance, particularly here in Alberta, on non-renewable resource extraction.
There is an ecological infrastructure in need of investment in Canada. Concern about damage to the economy needs an accompanying level of reflection about loss of natural capital. The credit crunch has a parallel meaning for society living beyond its ecological means. Our economic soundness is a direct function in the short-term and long-term of the strength of our ecological foundation.
A national conservation plan can create an objective for conservation in Canada, while opportunities and options still exist to create balance, awareness, and a future for subsequent generations. The Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society, better known as Cows and Fish, has worked for 20 years to engender a stewardship ethic towards shared resources of water, watersheds, and biodiversity.
Cows and Fish is a non-governmental organization that operates at ground level on public and private lands, in both rural and urban settings, on the essential task of conserving and managing riparian areas—the interface between land and water. We think our experience, which also includes helping other areas in Canada to develop capacity and tools for watershed conservation, has applicability to this initiative for the national conservation plan.
We appreciate the opportunity to briefly share some of our learnings. They may be useful in the deliberations on the elements, principles, priorities, and implementation of a national conservation plan. Our work revolves around stewardship, as this national plan should. Stewardship is an amalgam of awareness, ethics, and action. These elements are not divisible; they are related and are a continuum.
The first, awareness, is achieving a level of understanding or knowledge that provides the foundation for the next two. The second is the development of a set of ethics, an encoded sense of responsibilities and obligations, to care for land, water, and air as part of our conscience. The third, action, is exhibiting appropriate choice, embodying balance, restraint, and a sense of legacy.
The way Cows and Fish applies these elements of stewardship assists in community-based conservation through a process of engagement that creates opportunity to move from conflict to cooperation. Stewardship opportunity is created through a five-stage process, beginning with ecological awareness. Engagement begins with awareness, an effort to help people understand some of the ecological processes that shape the landscape they live on, and from which many make a living.
The second step is assisting in the development of teams or partnerships at a community or watershed level. A network of resource professionals, landowners, and others who value riparian landscapes has to form in order to solve issues and problems in a multidisciplinary fashion.
Step three is the assemblage of technical advice and tools for management changes to provide options and alternatives to current practices. Much of the information is gathered from innovative, progressive and practical solutions already being used by a select group of landowners. The task is one of locating those individuals involved, understanding the management action taken, and translating that action into an alternative for others to assess for possible application to their operation.
Other tools help the community group link biodiversity, economics, and water quality to management actions and alternatives.
The fourth step is critical. It is a transfer of responsibility for action to the community that is in the best position to make the changes and benefit from them. Part of the critical initial messaging is that there are choices and alternatives to current management practices. As the antithesis of the centralist or top-down approach, Cows and Fish encourages the formation of local or community teams, composed of technical, producer, and other local interests, to engage with each other to drive the process.
Although the process steps are constantly repeated, the fifth step is the monitoring phase using ecological measuring sticks to assess riparian function or health. Those measuring sticks allow an objective review of watershed condition to set benchmarks, link ecological status to management, help galvanize community action, and provide a monitoring framework for landowners and others.
The essence of the Cows and Fish program is bound within the five elements of the process I've just described. The program has a watershed or landscape focus relating to restoration and management of landscape health. Science is applied to assist in ecological understanding, including measuring sticks for landscape function. Our process changes the way we engage with landowners, to move from situations of conflict to areas of cooperation. Through the process, communities and others begin to see, value, and use landscapes differently and create a landscape vision that includes elements of ecological restoration and maintenance.
Cows and Fish is not a government program but works with agency staff to increase their effectiveness in communities. The program and its elements undergo periodic evaluation to monitor progress and determine impediments or barriers to stewardship actions. The Cows and Fish process has direct and proven application to conservation efforts in agricultural communities. The process also has utility for the resolution of other land-use issues to achieve a stewardship and conservation outcome.
Riparian and, by association, watershed actions need to be community based, locally driven, and largely voluntary. To help a community to arrive at this point requires knowledge-building, motivation, acknowledgement of problems, and empowerment. The reasons for positive action may be enhanced awareness, motivated self-interest, concern about legislation, marketing opportunity, or altruism. The net effect will be a return to a landscape that maintains a critical ecological function and provides a greater measure of support for agricultural operations.
The following are the principles upon which Cows and Fish operates. It is science-based and ecologically relevant. It uses stewardship as a driver. It is built on ecological literacy, building awareness within communities. It is system-oriented towards watersheds. It is scope- and scale-driven, that is, driven by restoration of ecological function. It is long-term and future-focused. It is community-based and delivered. It links sustainable actions to economics, and it is measurable and measured. These principles may have direct applicability to the design of a national conservation plan.
Cows and Fish is about building a cumulative body of knowledge that we all should have, including that on how riparian systems function and link us, how watersheds work, the vital signs of landscape health, the essentials of how people need to work together, how solutions need to benefit us all, as well as the kinds of information that will enable us to restore or maintain natural systems and build ecologically resilient communities and economies. These might also characterize the outcomes of the national conservation plan.