Building on UCP’s Conservation Plan [Opinion Piece]

Written By Guest Blogger: Paul McLauchlin, Reeve for Ponoka County and professional Biologist

Elections are one of the greatest opportunities to facilitate wanted change. However, they can also be an opportunity for strengthening past success, building upon past partnerships and forging new ones. With regards to “UCP Conservation Plan”, I  think the UCP are on to something. This election can be one that embraces the good things of the past, builds upon successes, revisits the focus of conservation goals, and provides for new partnerships. I believe the plan needs more work, but also feel there are key parts that should be highlighted and acknowledged. 

I must mention that a serious miscalculation by many involved in policy is the concept that protection is the only mechanism to conserve. We have protected our Crown forests for fibre, which has resulted in an ecosystem that lacks variability of age-class and has impaired biodiversity. The suppression of the fire cycle has resulted in a powder keg of forest fuel and with the formation of a protected park, the concept of management becomes impaired.  We do not need to better protect lands; we need to manage lands better. The Anthropocene has resulted in a forested ecosystem that lacks natural variability, and if a fire does occur (and it will), the resulting fire will be so intense that it will in fact set back biodiversity significantly. A backcountry land-use plan would fortify natural variability, ensuring access while managing the landscape to meet and improve environmental outcomes.

Alberta has had human intervention on ecosystems for thousands of years. Indigenous peoples have respected, managed, and utilized this landscape for many generations.  During the creation of the National Parks, the Canadian Government threw Metis and Indigenous peoples off the land and put up barriers that stopped human intervention. This approach has been a dismal failure as Jasper National Park is now ground zero for the Mountain Pine Beetle, and the unmanaged forests, from a biodiversity standpoint, lack age-class diversity. In the absence of frequent fire, the landscape must be managed.

We should also recognize that conservation plans for private lands must take a more collaborative approach to achieving environmental outcomes. For example, many of the Species at Risk exist on private lands or on occupied crown lands (Grazing Leases). MULTISAR is a species at risk partnership on agricultural lands that have made an important connection to achieving conservation objectives on working agricultural landscapes. With the UCP conservation plan further supporting other partnership programs such as Cows and Fish, the spirit and intent is clear: partnerships must be built to conserve.

The most important piece in the UCP Conservation Plan are concepts on ecosystem services, and market mechanisms that allow for both conservation and economic objectives to be achieved. I believe the concepts of conservation offsets and credits, are the most important mechanisms for conservation. These concepts mean that compensatory actions taken to replace environmental impairment due to development in one place provide opportunities to improve in other places. A mechanism to provide credit for valuable conservation activities either passively or actively will be a game changer for conservation in the province. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature have conservation goals for our prairie grasslands as a key biodiversity area. These goals could be achieved by working in partnership with agricultural landowners, as they are also the caretakers of the environment. Mechanisms such as credits could be provided for the biodiversity, and ecosystem services they already provide or would provide if given credit or an economic incentive. This can be achieved without the protection label that some find as the only solution.

Respectfully, I am not reading between the lines of the UCP Conservation Plan and instead see real substance in achieving the necessary goals, tools and partnerships in order to conserve for tomorrow. The substance is there, the solutions are apparent, and the endpoint would result in a very real path to achieving conservation and not just protection. Remember, this landscape was never in absence of human intervention or activities, and partnerships with owners, users and traditional communities is a real path to conservation.