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Op-ed: Dr. Yolanda Wiersma

The Island of Newfoundland needs more protected areas, says advisory council

By Dr. Yolanda Wiersma

Amidst all the dire stories and turmoil reported in the media in our province recently was one particular long-awaited news story.

The provincial government released its Protected Area Plan for the Island of Newfoundland document for public consultation.

Cabinet-appointed group

The proposal was developed under the advisement of the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council (WERAC), a cabinet-appointed group (of which my colleagues, PhD candidate Victoria Neville and Dr. Bill Montevecchi, and I are past members) whose mandate is to advise government on the establishment and management of the province’s Wilderness and Ecological Reserves.

This plan has been a long time coming. Formerly known as the NASP (Natural Areas System Plan), the sites were initially identified as having important conservation value more than 25 years ago.

Many members of the Memorial University community have been involved in this process, through serving on WERAC, or providing research on the island’s ecosystems.

Conserving ecoregions

The current plan, if fully implemented, would create 24 new protected areas, expand two existing reserves, and create six transitional reserves – these latter reserves are areas that have significant ecological value but where surveys have indicated the potential for mineral or petroleum resources.

If, after 10 years, there are no significant finds, a public consultation will be held on protecting those sites.

Together these will conserve a representative portion of each of the island’s natural ecoregions.

“We as a province are below accomplishments of many other provinces and countries.”

(Though Labradorians have served on WERAC both past and present, and sites have been considered from the whole province, Labrador was not included in this first plan. Protected area planning in Labrador will be linked to finalization of land claim and other rights recognition agreements.)

The proposal could put 13.2 per cent of land under formal legislated protection for conservation; a value below the United Nations’ Convention on Biodiversity’s Aichi Target of 17 per cent by 2020.

We as a province are below accomplishments of many other provinces and countries in terms of how much land is set aside for conservation. We have a lot of catching up to do.

Figure showing the percentage of land area formally protected in each province. N.L. is shown in orange.
Photo: Yolanda Wiersma

Protected areas essential for economic sustainability

In this era of economic uncertainty, many wonder: Should we even be concerned with protected areas?

As researchers working in biology, ecology and conservation, we are convinced that a network of strictly protected areas is essential for both ecological and economic sustainability in our province.

Intact natural ecosystems are vital to sustain our quality of life, whose fragility is so exceedingly evident in the current COVID-19 crisis.

We all enjoy, use and benefit from natural resources in our daily lives. Many of the island’s extractive economies, including forestry and fisheries, depend on intact, functional ecosystems for people to make a living.

“Research has shown that protected areas can contribute an equivalent revenue compared to the resources within the area.”

Protected areas provide us with a means to develop and assess strategies for sustainable resource development, providing environmental benchmarks needed to gauge environmental changes.

Adventure tourism, fishing and hunting are major components of our economy. Tourists spend over $500 million per year and the industry generates over 20,000 jobs.

Tourists come here to experience our unique landscapes and seascapes and to view seabirds and wildlife in their natural setting.

Research has shown that protected areas can contribute an equivalent revenue compared to the resources within the area.

Often take for granted

As we engage the profound challenges imposed by climate change, well-designed networks of protected areas provide ecosystem services such as clean water, carbon sequestration, flood buffering and air filtration that we do not have to pay for and hence too often take for granted.

If you have an interest in conserving our natural places, then we encourage you to engage with the current public consultation on the Protected Areas Plan.

We invite all members of the Memorial University community and the citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador to review the Protected Areas Plan and the accompanying Questions and Answers Document, and to submit commentary via the website.

You are also invited to join the Support “A Home for Nature” – Island of Newfoundland Facebook group.

Co-authored by Victoria Neville, PhD candidate, Department of Biology, and former co-chair, WERAC; and Dr. Bill Montevecchi, professor, Departments of Biology, Ocean Sciences and Psychology, John Lewis Paton Distinguished University Professor, and former WERAC member.

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