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Valuing and protecting

Faculty serving in voluntary capacity to establish N.L. nature reserves

special feature: Environment

Part of a special series showcasing faculty, staff and students’ commitment to placing the environment at the forefront of  research, public engagement and teaching and learning activities at Memorial.

By Mandy Cook

When it comes to creating protected areas in Newfoundland and Labrador, four Memorial faculty members are on the job – even though it’s not in their job descriptions.

As researchers and educators in the Faculty of Science, Drs. Luise Hermanutz, Bill Montevecchi, Yolanda Wiersma and Len Zedel contribute to the global body of scientific knowledge everyday.

And, as cabinet-appointed members of the Wilderness and Ecological Reserve Advisory Council (WERAC), they give freely of their time and expertise to protect Newfoundland and Labrador’s natural heritage.

From left, Dr. Len Zedel, Dr. Yolanda Wiersma, Dr. Bill Montevecchi and Dr. Luise Hermanutz.
From left are Dr. Len Zedel, Dr. Yolanda Wiersma, Dr. Bill Montevecchi and Dr. Luise Hermanutz.
Photo: Chris Hammond

The council’s purpose is to advise the provincial government on the creation and management of wilderness and ecological reserves, such as the world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site at Mistaken Point and the lesser known Watt’s Point on the Great Northern Peninsula.

And while Newfoundland and Labrador has made progress in its conservation goals — 20 reserves have been created since the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves (WER) Act was passed in 1980 — WERAC’s challenging task remains: to work towards the public release and review of the provincial Natural Areas System Plan and to then work co-operatively with communities, industry and other members of the public to create a viable protected areas system.

UNESCO World Heritage Site Mistaken Point, N.L.
UNESCO World Heritage Site Mistaken Point, N.L.

Proactive rather than reactive

Dr. Montevecchi, University Research Professor, says a plan is a must in order for Newfoundland and Labrador to have a proactive, rather than reactive, approach when making proper decisions about the environment, the economy and society.

“Without a plan for land and coastal area use, we are entrapped in an unending process of crisis management in which government decision-makers can only react to development proposals,” he said.

Dr. Hermanutz, a conservation biologist, conducts research in Labrador and on the island.

She says Newfoundland and Labrador’s protected area coverage lags behind the rest of Canada and joined WERAC to be part of the process of determining which areas should be protected, based on scientific evidence and community consultation.

“As surprising as it is, our province is one of the last in Canada to actually release a protected areas plan, so I wanted to contribute to working towards our Convention on Biological Diversity – Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 commitments, which would see 17 per cent of the province protected.”

‘Forum for communities’

Because the council advises the provincial minister of Environment and Climate Change and is representative of the populace of the province, it can carry significant influence, says Dr. Wiersma. Members’ backgrounds range in expertise, such as science, tourism, stewardship, enforcement and Aboriginal issues, and hail from various parts of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“We are a forum for communities who wish to see a local area protected and we can help advocate their cause to government,” said Dr. Wiersma, a landscape ecologist with a longstanding research interest in protected areas planning and management.

“At the same time, we have a provincewide “lens” to see how individual protected areas contribute to larger-scale conservation goals.”

Dr. Zedel, whose research focus is oceanographic processes through the use of acoustic systems, agrees. He says one of the most important aspects of WERAC is its role as a “communication interface” between communities and the provincial government on issues of protected areas.

“WERAC provides communities with an independent point of contact through which they can express concerns or proposals.” — Dr. Len Zedel

“Because WERAC members are volunteers, not government employees, they provide an independent voice when they speak to communities,” he said.

“And, WERAC provides communities with an independent point of contact through which they can express concerns or proposals.”

Public and private

Individuals, groups, government departments or non-governmental organizations can propose an area for protection under the WER Act by completing the WERAC Study Area Nomination Form.

Together, WERAC and the province’s Parks and Natural Areas Division work to ensure that all public and private interests are fairly heard and considered when reserves are being planned and established. Once a reserve is created, the Parks and Natural Areas Division manages it, and ensures that it keeps its ecological integrity.

The group says that in addition to working towards releasing the Natural Areas System Plan, the council is currently focusing on a number of potential new protected areas.

Labrador is at the top of several members’ lists; Dr. Zedel says the Central Newfoundland forest ecosystem has been under pressure from forest harvesting, cabin development and mining interests for some time.

Dr. Montevecchi says it’s time to work with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and inshore fishermen to protect the waters around Newfoundland and Labrador’s globally significant seabird capitals, such as Cape St. Mary’s and the Gannet Islands.

Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, N.L.
Photo: Huffington Post

Recently, the group met with community members in Lewisporte to discuss Indian Arm Bay.

Protected areas = self-regulating benchmarks

Protected areas are more than just isolated examples of key and endangered wildlife and plant populations, says Dr. Montevecchi.

Setting aside significant ecological areas of the province as “environmental archives” provide natural, self-regulating benchmarks of ecosystem processes necessary for understanding the implications of environmental change.

“We need places where nature can run its course.” — Dr. Bill Montevecchi

“As a society, we go to great lengths to archive our culture, our history and our ancestries,” he said.

“We need to make the same commitments to archive special components of our environment that have spawned the human endeavours of our Indigenous Peoples and of all those who followed. We need places where nature can run its course.”

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