Technology Science - Canada protects less wilderness than average: report

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Canada lags behind the U.S. and the global average when it comes to setting aside wilderness for protection, a new report says.

In 2010, just 8.5 per cent of Canada's land mass was in permanent protected areas â€Â" significantly below the worldwide average of 12.9 per cent, according to the report, released Wednesday by Global Forest Watch Canada.

Two Jack Lake in Banff National Park, Canada's first national park.Two Jack Lake in Banff National Park, Canada's first national park. (Travel Alberta)

The United States has set aside 14.8 per cent of its land mass, reported the Edmonton-based non-profit group, whose mission is to provide information about development activities in Canada's forests and their environmental impact.

"We thought it was strange that Canada is so far below the global average given that we have all these large northern spaces that are essentially undisturbed," said Ryan Cheng, a Global Forest Watch Canada researcher who co-authored the report. "Also, as Canadians, we value nature."

Much of the undisturbed space is owned by the Crown, making it relatively easy to designate as protected, Cheng said.

"Protected areas are essentially the global cornerstone for conserving biodiversity," he added, noting that they are used to measure and compare different jurisdictions' conservation efforts.

Government boosting protected lands

Melissa Lantsman, a spokeswoman for Environment Minister Peter Kent, said in an email Wednesday that according to the government's figures, 9.6 percent of the Canada's land area and 0.6 per cent of its marine area are currently protected. She added that the government committed at the 2010 Nagoya Biodiversity Summit in Japan to protect 17 per cent of Canada’s land area and 10 per cent of its marine area by 2020.

"Our new projects put us well above that 'average,' " Lantsman said.

She added that the amount of protected area has grown 13 per cent, or 60,000 square kilometres, since 2006.

While many protected areas are national and provincial parks, they also include other categories such as "wilderness areas."

According to Cheng, the government had last publicly reported in 2005 that 8.6 per cent of its lands were permanently protected and another 1.3 per cent had temporary protection, representing an increase of 19 per cent since 2000.

The researchers wanted more up-to-date figures, so they used publicly available federal data to figure out how much of Canada's land mass was protected.

They found that while the amount of permanently protected land hasn't changed much, the area receiving temporary protection has increased to 3.7 per cent. Cheng said such areas, which include areas of northern Quebec and the Northwest Territories, are treated exactly like permanently protected areas, but only for a fixed period such as four years. After that, the protection may or may not be partially or fully renewed.

Human activity

The researchers also found that permanently protected areas were not free of human disturbance â€Â" in more than half of protected areas, a quarter of the land within their boundaries was within 500 metres of roads, power lines, mining, logging, hydro-power and oil and gas developments, and other human activity.

In fact, Cheng said, many provinces allow resource exploitation within protected areas. For example, oil and gas development is allowed in some Alberta protected areas, and forestry is allowed in some Manitoba protected areas.

But he said he believes designating areas as protected is still meaningful.

"Despite all the various activities that can be allowed," he said, "it does show that the government values a certain area."

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