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As Canada's habitats disappear, conservation needs to start at our doorstep
Many of our country's threatened species live in its most populated provinces. By saving the green space around us, we can help them survive

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Saturday, June 22, 2019 – Page A10

Until this year, Kaitlin Kennedy had little cause to think about the South Cameron woodlot.

Located in Windsor, Ont., the woodlot consists of 0.6 square kilometres of mature trees and undergrowth where water pools in springtime and where threatened species such as Butler's garter snake and willowleaf aster can sometimes be spotted. Surrounded on all sides by suburban homes and city streets, it is a tiny remnant of the lush hardwood forests that blanketed the region centuries ago.

In March, Windsor's mayor, Drew Dilkens, announced that the Ontario government had lifted a "significant wetland" designation from part of the woodlot, effectively freeing it up for development into high-end residential properties. In a Facebook post, Mr. Dilkens thanked Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whom he had personally lobbied for the change.

Ms. Kennedy, who works for a local pharmaceutical company and has a graduate degree in biology, couldn't believe what she was reading. Why would a municipality with only 8-per-cent tree cover and an environmental plan that prioritizes the need for more green space give up one of its last remaining pockets of wild habitat - not to mention destroy a natural buffer for storm water in a region where heavy rains and flooded basements are endemic?

"A decision based on land use is not looking at the big picture," she said. "It's important to protect the natural landscape."

Many residents agreed. Ms. Kennedy launched an online petition to preserve the woodlot that quickly amassed nearly 10,000 names. James Morrison, the city councillor whose ward includes the site, has also taken up the fight. As many as 200 property owners hold a piece of the woodlot, he said. To save it all, the city will need to buy them out - a scenario that the mayor said would cost millions.

At this point, the fate of the woodlot is unclear as the city proceeds to map the area and sort out who owns what. But the case illustrates a larger issue at the heart of efforts to conserve nature in Canada.

On one hand, the country is huge - nearly 10 million square kilometres - including the vast boreal forest and the sweeping Arctic tundra beyond. And while studies suggest that much of this northern wilderness is inadequately protected, it remains, for now, relatively intact.

The problem is that Canada's biodiversity is concentrated elsewhere. Like the human population, it is pressed against the border with the United States, where warmer temperatures and a longer growing season permit a more varied suite of plants and animals. In these areas, Canada is indistinguishable from other developed parts of the world: Most of the native habitat has been plowed under to make room for intensive agriculture or paved over by urban growth.

The data back up this assessment. Of the more than 700 species of plants and animals that are listed or recommended for listing under the federal Species at Risk Act, the largest numbers are found in the most populated provinces. British Columbia, which has the most diverse range of ecosystems owing to rainfall and elevation, tops the list at 295, more than 100 of which are found within Vancouver alone.

In terms of geographic distribution, threatened species map almost exactly onto the most densely settled or farmed areas of the country.

"This is where we will either win or lose the fight to conserve the majority of Canadian species - and where we as citizens have to take responsibility," said Jeremy Kerr, a biologist at the University of Ottawa who specializes in biodiversity loss.

Vanishing habitat is the reason most species end up listed. In southern Canada, much of the habitat that once existed is now private land where the federal species law does not apply, except where it pertains to aquatic species and migratory birds.

All of this puts little-known places such as the South Cameron woodlot at the fulcrum of Canada's conservation efforts. At a national level, it turns out that saving species is not something that can be accomplished only by setting aside wilderness areas in remote parts of the country that few people will ever see. For conservation to succeed, Canadians need to find ways to better integrate human spaces with the wilderness that is on the doorstep.

"If we really want to protect nature, we need to protect it all around us and in between us," said Lenore Fahrig, a landscape ecologist at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"And people need to understand there's potential for that everywhere."

Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which includes the provision, adopted in 2010, that member countries designate at least 17 per cent of their land area for habitat and species protection by the end of 2020. In response to the looming deadline, the federal budget last year included a $1.3-billion allocation to accelerate conservation.

Not surprisingly, much of the new funding has been aimed at the least developed parts of the country, including Northern and Indigenous lands where the federal government is looking to set aside enough natural space to meet the target. Places that are under consideration for protection tend to feature size and connectivity, and give species room to move and to support large populations of wildlife.

The difference in the south is that the federal government cannot act directly in most areas unless it applies emergency measures to enforce habitat protection on provincial or private land - something that Ottawa has been reluctant to do. Instead, the strategy has been to encourage conservation efforts led by others.

In April, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna announced the $100-million Natural Heritage Conservation Program, which is aimed at landowners who are seeking to donate or manage their property for its ecological benefit. The program offers one dollar for every two that is raised or donated for conservation through third-party organizations, including the Nature Conservancy of Canada and other land trusts that seek to buy up and preserve parcels of native habitat. Although the federal government has offered similar assistance in the past, in this case, the program is aimed specifically at places where species at risk are found.

Collectively, the program's objective is to protect an additional 2,000 square kilometres toward Canada's 17-per-cent target. In terms of overall area, this does not amount to much. What matters more is where the money is applied, simply because there is so little habitat left where it is needed most.

Dan Kraus, senior conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy, is working on an assessment for all of southern Canada that will help identify areas of critical habitat where species conservation can be most effective. Priority places include those that can connect parcels of native habitat and reduce the chance that a species will be extirpated (eliminated from Canada) when it becomes hemmed in to just a few vulnerable locations.

"I think we're recognizing now that isolated parks and protected areas are not enough to capture the biodiversity of an entire region," he said.

But while emphasizing connectivity may help threatened species be more resilient, Dr. Fahrig says that it should not be taken as a reason to disregard small pockets of nature that are not connected to anything.

On the contrary, such places could be more important than their size and isolation suggest because they offer a final redoubt for some populations of plants and animals in a particular region.

To some extent, this runs contrary to the emphasis on protecting large, undivided natural spaces. The debate is known by its acronym, SLOSS, for "single large or several small." Dr. Fahrig maintains that while it's always better to conserve more habitat than less, it needn't be all in one place and there may be no lower threshold for what size of area matters.

Dr. Fahrig's ideal scenario, which she admits is aspirational, would be for every property owner in Canada, from corporations to city dwellers with postagestamp-sized lots, to set aside a fraction of their land for conservation, just as Canada has committed to doing at a national scale.

Because of the sheer amount of natural habitat such a scheme would bring to human-dominated landscapes, "I think that would go a lot farther than searching for specific places that we think are bigger or most connected," she added.

The idea is not far-fetched, said Faisal Moola, an environmental policy expert at the University of Guelph who was involved with the development of Canada's first urban national park in Toronto's Rouge River Valley. He added that cities should be leveraging their local geography to create networks of green space at the scale of individual lots and neighbourhoods that connect to larger corridors and spaces for nature on a regional scale.

"We need to create incentives for private landowners to commit more of their

personal property to biodiversity-friendly forms of urban development," Dr. Moola said.

While awareness is growing about the need to conserve habitat beyond the boundaries of national parks, it is also the case that in populated regions of Canada, small pockets of habitat are continuing to vanish without notice.

Jenny McCune, a plant ecologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, recalled a study conducted in 2017 in rural eastern Ontario that involved visiting woodlots that had been surveyed some 20 years earlier for rare and endangered plants.

"In a bunch of the ones that we went to, there was no forest there anymore," she said.

The reason, she added, is simple economics. In many areas, the cost of buying prime farmland is greater than the cost of clearing a stand of trees and removing the stumps. What is missing are incentives to keep natural habitat intact. The same applies to more urban areas.

The relatively high price of land in populated areas means the Nature Conservancy has to prioritize purchases it makes on a limited budget. But even in those places, the approach still requires landowners to get on board with conservation. Often, the prerequisite is an emotional attachment to a property that goes beyond its commercial value.

For example, over the past six months, the Conservancy has announced donations of land in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Manitoba, all of which meet the criteria of the Natural Heritage Conservation Program. All were given in memory of family members connected to those sites. In other cases, the donors have continued to participate by looking after the natural spaces they have elected to preserve.

John Caraberis, a Nova Scotia businessman who has donated land in the Pugwash River estuary and persuaded others to do the same, said that for him, the calculation was a simple one.

"I think if the land is not protected today, particularly in settled areas, it's going to be developed. ... It's not going to be left alone," he said.

But setting aside donated or purchased land for conservation still leaves another problem: what to do in places where land can't be left alone because it's involved in agricultural production?

For Bryan Gilvesy, chief executive officer of ALUS Canada, the answer is to make farmers part of the solution. His not-forprofit organization (its acronym stands for Alternate Land Use Services) pays farmers to repurpose the marginal land they might otherwise cultivate and, instead, put it to work providing ecosystem services.

"The farmers are taking that acreage and managing it for an environmental purpose," Mr. Gilvesy said. The effort now involves some 23,000 acres across Canada, the equivalent of a small national park.

In Southwestern Ontario, for example, the program has contracted farmers to allow meadows to grow on lands that are near rivers and streams. These areas absorb runoff from nearby fields and take up excess nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer that would otherwise end up promoting algae blooms in Lake Erie. At the same time, the meadows create natural habitat for pollinators and other species.

"The beneficial insects show up in large numbers and high diversity within the first year," said Andrew MacDougall, a conservation biologist at the University of Guelph who has measured the impact of the program on the landscape. In subsequent years, he said, the tall grasses develop a root network that acts as a nutrient sponge and then begins locking carbon into the soil.

Alhough the total amount of working farmland that can be allocated this way is small, it can have an outsized effect by restoring habitat for a relatively low cost. It also points to a future era of "precision farming," in which areas that have ideal soil composition for cost-effective food production are identified and cultivated, while neighbouring areas that are not worth the economic and environmental cost of additional fertilizer and pesticides are left in a natural state.

Dr. Fahrig said her research suggests that wilderness areas need not be large to promote biodiversity as long as nature is present in many places - not unlike the smaller family farms of a previous generation, where hedgerows and other natural spaces occupied gaps between fields of crops.

In a study she conducted of agricultural land in Canada and Europe, she and her collaborators found that species do better where natural spaces are interspersed with worked farmland, rather than grouped into a single clump to make room for large areas of single-crop cultivation.

Whether in urban or rural Canada, strategies for preserving habitat all have something in common: a recognition that nature has a value that counterbalances the monetary value of that land when it is used for other things. It is a message that resonates with the public, but, in many cases, has not permeated the legal and political framework that determines land use in local and regional governments across the country.

In some instances, the tax system works perversely against conservation, said Peter Arcese, a conservation scientist at the University of British Columbia. He said that along B.C.'s coastal lower mainland, property owners can receive a tax reduction for keeping land agricultural - for example, by grazing cattle - but the incentive would not apply if the landowner instead allowed native forest to regrow on the property.

Dr. Arcese, who has studied tax-shifting schemes that benefit nature, said the system is a relic from the colonial era when land in its natural state was viewed as unproductive. What is needed, he said, is a change to the tax laws in B.C. that extends the notion of productivity to storing carbon and the other ecosystem services a landscape can provide.

Provincial governments, because of their jurisdiction over natural resources, typically have more direct control than Ottawa over the fate of species and habitat in much of the country, and their record is mixed.

Earlier this month, the government under Ontario Premier Ford passed an omnibus housing bill that loosens rules on species protection, and reduces the power of local conservation authorities to protect and enhance habitat if municipal governments don't co-operate. While it is too early to say how the changes will play out, Deborah Martin-Downs, a biologist who heads up the Credit Valley Conservation Authority west of Toronto, is concerned that the bill's emphasis on land use risks "taking us back to where we were 30 or 40 years ago."

Dr. Moola said governments at all levels need to be thinking about a three-step process that begins with saving whatever habitat is left, restoring habit that exists but has been degraded by invasive species and human impact, and then looking to increase habitat wherever possible.

For too long, he said, the developed parts of Canada have been viewed as a landscape of regret that people travel away from in order to experience nature.

"It can also be a landscape of opportunity," he said, adding that the Convention on Biological Diversity not only calls for protecting a target amount of land but also for employing measures to conserve biodiversity in the places where it is most at risk.

Back in Windsor, Kaitlin Kennedy said she feels motivated to keep the South Cameron woodlot intact both for the services it provides the city and for its value to future generations, including her own one-year-old daughter.

Mayor Dilkens told The Globe and Mail he is focusing on conservation in other parts of the city. Any private owner who wishes to pursue development in the woodlot will still need to meet all provincial and [Essex Region] Conservation Authority requirements, he said. "This won't be easy to satisfy in this area, but it's not impossible."

Richard Wyma, who heads up the Essex Region authority, which includes Windsor, said the personal connection that residents feel toward the woodlot will ultimately determine what happens to it. He added that natural spaces that are close to home serve a purpose beyond their ecological value.

By keeping nature present in peoples' lives, they make broader discussion about the environment and its benefits seem less remote and abstract.

"The No. 1 thing is to get out and explore these areas," Mr. Wyma said. "It's really important that people form an attachment to these places, because if they're not using them, then that's when the problems come."

Associated Graphic


Kaitlin Kennedy, seen with her daughter, says she's protecting the South Cameron woodlot in Windsor for future generations.


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