Ladies and gentlemen of the standing committee, we appreciate the opportunity to make this submission for your consideration.
Developing a national conservation plan is a very difficult task. In the process we have a great opportunity to strengthen the foundation of Canada as a world leader in conserving the natural assets that contribute so much to our standard of living and make us an example to the world.
When talking about conservation, one would expect to hear mostly about animals, birds, fish and the importance of protecting and preserving their habitat.
We, on the other hand, are here not so much to speak about them directly, although that's why we are here and what we do. Rather, we are here to speak about people, about Canadians, for it is Canadians who will benefit from good planning, who will suffer from ineffective planning, and, in the end, who will implement whatever plan comes out of a national conservation structure and process.
I'm the executive director of a conservation lands trust, the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society, or SALTS as we call it. We protect landscapes using the conservation easement tool and supplement that activity through environmental education and research projects. We focus our conservation efforts on water, wildlife, and western heritage, that is, we protect watersheds and wildlife habitat and connectivity, and we promote good land stewardship as part of our western heritage and culture. While doing that, we have a lot of contact with a lot of landowners, especially agricultural landowners, but also with other organizations that are more environmental in nature all around southern Alberta.
I was sorry that, for example, Dr. Stelfox wasn't able to present to you this morning. We have worked with Dr. Stelfox and Lorne Fitch, whom I believe presented earlier this morning. We work with a lot of these people on a very regular basis.
We at SALTS believe in a shared landscape. Canada is a large country, and there's room for wildlife, resources extraction, agriculture, recreation, and other activities that lend themselves to a high standard of living. We also believe that the sharing of a landscape should be planned in a rational way using science and not simply driven by every person or corporation that shows up with a dollar and a dream wanting to fulfill some wish of their own.
When considering some form of national conservation planning process, we expect that the outcome will be used to drive future policy and future budget items. We also understand that to be fully effective it must apply to both public lands and, to some extent, private lands. For the latter, such policy must revolve around various incentive systems, including, for example, market-based instruments and, of course, things like conservation easements, which we're involved in under, for example, the ecological gifts program through Environment Canada.
An asset contributes to one's standard of living by providing a value stream. Like money in the bank that generates annual interest, a natural capital asset can generate a value stream in the form of ecological services and resources, for example, energy and minerals. Of these two, ecological services are the least understood and, in our opinion, the least appreciated. In fact, these two value streams can often be in conflict considering that resource extraction can damage the flow of ecological services. We would argue that an effective NCP would give these two value streams a much more relative, equal value.
We understand that the current consultation is a very preliminary one. From the questions posed it appears to be focused on developing a form of terms of reference for whatever group or process that would develop such a plan. We believe that such a process should involve communities and be as inclusive as possible. It should also be based, as I said, on science and on facts. The process should not be one of hiring a large organization and simply saying, “Here, we'll give you some money and you go ahead and develop a plan for us”—a kind of a top-down plan—but rather something that comes from the bottom up, consulting with communities and Canadians on the ground, especially landowners, agricultural organizations, as we're doing here today and environmental organizations, and so on.
With these considerations in mind, we will proceed to answer the six questions.
First, what should be the purpose of an NCP? We believe that it should be to clarify a vision, and I underline the term “vision”; define goals; set a timeframe; and then plan how to effectively allocate resources, stimulate efforts, and remove impediments to achieving the goals. To me that's, very simply, the purpose.
As for the goals of an NCP, there are seven goals that seem to make sense to us. These are very general. It seems to us that, first of all, that you need to develop a vision for Canada and various unique geographic areas. It may therefore be premature to look at specific goals; however, I will look at some. Those goals, from our point of view, are as follows.
First is the effective management and conservation of landscapes and geology that are critical to water capture, filtering, and storage.
I will talk a little bit later about our comparative advantages, and I very much believe that one of them is water and agriculture.
Second is wildlife habitat for the purpose of conserving and enhancing biodiversity. Third is landscapes that are important to the production of environmental and climatic services. Fourth is agricultural land that is most suitable for food production. We all understand the problem of urban sprawl and how that is, in many cases, happening on some of our best soils.
Fifth is oceans, and lentic and lotic water systems that are important to aquatic life. Sixth is landscapes suitable for outdoor recreation and education. Seventh is features that are important parts of our aesthetic and cultural heritage. From our point of view, those should be, in rough order of priority, the seven things that a national conservation plan should look at.
Now you've looked for guiding principles that we should suggest. We have twelve of them.
First of all, the long-term value of a productive and healthy natural ecosystem to the well-being of people should be recognized and protected—watersheds in particular.
The vision and wishes of the local community should be respected. This doesn't mean that you should slavishly follow that, but within some form of framework and vision for a national conservation plan, the local communities are very important. Part of that is because if you do not have the local people on side with you, the chance of achieving your goals is much less.
Third, the need of the landowner and the larger community, including industry, to use the land in order to make a reasonable living should be respected, provided it doesn't significantly damage the ability of the ecosystem to provide value to others. There needs to be some balance there. For example, feedlots are a poor use of land in a watershed. They may be appropriate in other areas, and so on.
My next point is that the signs of cumulative effects analysis on defined landscapes should be used to determine limits to specific development types in specific locations. Going back to Dr. Stelfox, he has software and a great deal of knowledge and experience in developing analyses around cumulative effects, and we believe that is very important in developing any type of national conservation plan. It does involve value in land, not necessarily in dollars but certainly in the relative value of different land parcels.
When productive and healthy ecosystems are damaged due to industrial or other activity, the developing organization should be held accountable for restoring the ecosystem under a pre-defined timeframe, and the planning for this should be done prior to the start of the project.
One of the key things here is that in many cases, of course, we know historically that , corporations and organizations often try to put off restoration to later on, and we feel it should be carried on their balance sheets as a liability. That way everybody understands this, and there is quite a strong incentive for them to actually restore the landscape as the process ensues, rather than at the tail end.
Where planning conflict occurs between industrial development and the protection of the health and productivity of natural areas, the NCP should provide clear direction on resolving a conflict. Too often, I have seen cases where, in the case of conflict between different groups, the wording and the structure gets watered down to the point almost of irrelevancy. Market-based valuation of ecosystems has a useful but limited role in making decisions when it comes to conflict between development and conservation.
A conservation planning process should respect the rights of property ownership. We've heard that before. Land trusts and conservation easements are effective and invaluable tools in implementing these kind of measures and should be supported in policy and funding, and of course that's what we do. We already have the ecological gift program, and I'm sure there are other issues in terms of market-based instruments as well.
Any conservation plan needs to set up a method of measuring those natural assets—and again, measuring these assets is something we do not do very well. We measure GDP, but we don't measure assets very well.
Last, the precautionary principle should be seriously considered when dealing with natural assets that are of critical importance.
In terms of the priorities and goals, we feel that in many ways it is almost too premature to look at priorities, as we feel they will be developed during the process of developing a national conservation plan. With that said, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.
Any questions would be answered.