The Government of Canada has set a goal of protecting 30% of the country’s land and water by 2030 and is committing funds to assist land conservation organizations in purchasing and monitoring sensitive parcels of land. Is transferring this responsibility into private hands a good idea? What land should be protected? How should it be protected? Is land conservation an effective means of protecting biodiversity? Are there alternatives?

Who is responsible and what is the purpose of protected areas?

National parks constituted North America’s first conservation lands and were set aside and managed by national governments. Provincial parks followed. As areas set aside for public enjoyment, the focus has been on recreation and tourism with concerns being raised that these pursuits put wildlife and wild places in danger. Logging is permitted in Manitoba’s provincial parks.

Responsibility has gradually devolved to non-governmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ducks Unlimited, and private land trusts. Private conservation initiatives incorporate their own set of contradictions. Ducks Unlimited undertakes important conservation work, but it was established by hunters who wanted to protect their source of recreation. Land easements are often motivated by stakeholders’ desire for financial incentives as well as personal and psychological factors, which may be at cross-purposes to the overriding goal of protecting biodiversity and land with high ecological value. Private conservation initiatives may also be controversial as it could be seen as “a form of privatization of protected areas or commodification of nature conservation.”

What land should be protected?

Conservation organizations tend to focus their limited resources on purchasing and maintaining habitats of high biodiversity value in strategic areas. The Nature Trust of BC is currently purchasing wetland areas throughout the province, such as the bogs and fens of the Meteor Lake wetland and the Shoal Creek estuary, which is on the Pacific Flyway. The trust has also obtained funds to monitor, research, and improve estuary habitat to enhance long-term sustainability.

Conservation lands have traditionally been located in rural areas. This is changing with greater recognition of the important role urban areas play in protecting and maintaining biodiversity. The Habitat Acquisition Trust was established in 1996 by the Victoria Natural History Society. Its urban conservation sites include a remnant of Garry oak meadows on the shore of Victoria’s Inner Harbour as well as a 40-acre parcel in a residential area incorporating 3 creeks, wetlands, and rocky outcrop meadows. Baltimore Green Space protects 16 urban sites including community gardens, pocket parks, and urban forests.

How should it be protected?

How to protect natural areas is an ongoing challenge. A study has found that the presence of even a few humans impacts wildlife activity in parks so how does one provide the public with opportunities to enjoy natural areas without chasing the animals away or damaging the land? In addition, current laws and policies are focused on mitigating impacts on biodiversity rather than preventing them: "Mitigation makes the problem less bad than it otherwise would be, but very little is done to control or regulate the pace and scale of our consumption and use of the natural resources."

Is land conservation an effective means of protecting biodiversity?

There have been relatively few studies of land conservation as an effective means of protecting biodiversity. A study of 14 species of birds in California showed that 9 had better population trends in protected areas than the regional average. A 2021 report on the value of land conservation in Alberta indicated that land trusts protected 2-8% of threatened ecosystems, such as wetlands and foothills fescue prairie, 20% of the private land in the ecological corridors of the Crowsnest Pass, and provided a small amount of protection for water resources.

In addition, land trusts’ ability to protect biodiversity is dependent on the area being adequately secured and managed with proper resources and planning (“which includes identifying the major threats and the actions needed to abate them”).

Are there alternative approaches to protecting biodiversity?

Raincoast Conservation Foundation has purchased 5 hunting tenures and is raising funds to purchase the largest tenure yet in order to eliminate trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest. A group of Vancouver Islanders hope to purchase the timber lots surrounding their village and maintain them as protected forest. Another option may be to purchase the timber harvesting rights for a particular plot of land.

Some conservation organizations are collaborating with local First Nations. On Vancouver Island, a strip of land along the Englishman River has been donated to the Nature Trust of BC who will work with the Snaw-naw-as First Nation to manage its long-term conservation, with the First Nation recognized as a rights holder in the stewardship and management agreement. Work is now underway to create an Indigenous protected and conserved area in Manitoba’s Seal River watershed.

The newly established Nature-Based Solutions Foundation has adopted a more expansive approach to conservation. Their goals include “supporting land acquisition efforts to protect old growth on private lands, helping First Nation communities establish new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), supporting small woodlot owners to protect old-growth forests, and funding the development of more sustainable and prosperous local economies.”

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is dedicated to “securing the long-term health of an entire region.”  Their efforts to protect a large landscape rather than isolated areas is proving successful. “From 1993 through 2018, habitat protection increased from 7.8% to 17.6% of the Y2Y region. Elsewhere in North America, protected areas grew by only 2.5% during the same period.”

In California, the One Tam partnership is mobilizing the resources of the National Park Service, California State Parks, The Marin Municipal Water District, Marin County Parks, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to protect Mt. Tamalpais. Employing landscape-scale stewardship, One Tam leverages the combined skills and resources of its partners to do more than any of them could accomplish individually.

Additional Resources

To attain global climate and biodiversity goals, we must reclaim nature in our cities [The Conversation]

‘Urban’ or “urbanized’? Implications for nature conservation [Corvus Centre for Conservation Policy]

We Rise Together: Achieving Pathway to Canada Target 1 through the creation of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas in the spirit and practice of reconciliation [Indigenous Circle of Experts]

The frontline of conservation: how Indigenous guardians are reinforcing sovereignty and science on their lands [The Narwhal]

How secrecy protects beloved nature spots [The Tyee]

An interdisciplinary assessment of private conservation areas in the Western United States [SpringerLink]

Midwest Landscape Initiative: Making US midwest connections for fish and wildlife [Conservation Corridor]

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