Proceed with caution: conservation area ahead

As a scuba diver, I get excited whenever our governments take measures to protect ocean habitats, so I was paying close attention during a recent announcement about a national marine conservation area for the South Georgia Strait, an area that encompasses the southern Gulf Islands and surrounding waters.

The conservation area is still far from a reality, but the province and the feds have finally agreed to a proposed boundary so the project can advance to the next consultation phase. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s significant in that B.C. has agreed to transfer the administration of the seabed to the federal government so the marine reserve can be created.

Canada has identified 29 marine regions and has promised to create a conservation area in each, but so far there are only four (I’ve been lucky enough to visit each of them!). I get frustrated by the glacial pace of creating new parks, especially when I compare it with the unseemly haste with which industrial projects, such as pipelines, get shoved through the approvals process.

In this instance, what I found particularly interesting were the reasons the ministers gave for the need to advance slowly – so that they could undertake in-depth consultations with First Nations, local governments and stakeholders.

B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said, “It’s important that our decision reflect the needs of the public, and the communities and First Nations nearby, as well as the need for continued protection of this ecosystem.” Federal Environment Minister Kent added, “Today’s announcement affirms the commitment of this government to protect and conserve our rich landscape…”

Wait a minute. Community consultations, First Nations’ approval, concern for the environment? Aren’t these exactly the things that British Columbians have been telling both levels of government that we want for the waters of northern B.C.?

If we agree that the creation of a national park ought to be subject to a rigorous and inclusive consultative process (and I would agree) then surely it would be rank hypocrisy to suggest that infrastructure projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline should be subject to anything less. In fact, if you consider the environmental risk of parks creation vs. the potential for oil spills then it would seem only fitting that the pipeline be held to an even higher standard.

The rallying cry of Dogwood Initiative’s No Tankers campaign is “Our Coast, Our Decision.” More than 75,000 of you have joined together to demand that our voices are heard and that the wishes of First Nations and local communities are respected. We expect our governments to be at least as cautious with development as they seem to be with conservation.

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