Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Greening a Government

“Here's a statistic that shocked me,” says Environment Minister Mark Parent. “I was at a meeting in Brazil, and I learned that Brazil has about 4000 kilometers of coastline. Nova Scotia has about 10,000 kilometers – 12,000 if you include the Bras d'Or Lakes. We have three times as much coastline as Brazil.”

That startled me, too. I knew that our intricate filigree of a coastline was pretty extensive, but 12,000 km. is huge – three times the distance between the east and west coasts of Canada.

I wanted to talk with the Minister about protecting that gorgeous, complex coastline, which may be vulnerable precisely because there is so much of it. We don't think to guard something so abundant, any more than we think about declaring spruce trees an endangered species.

But there is a danger, all the same. The Maritimes have almost the only remaining large stretches of wild coast in eastern North America, and development is steadily nibbling away at it.

Mark Parent is the minister responsible for protecting and extending Nova Scotia's wilderness areas. The government has announced its intention to have 12% of the province's land mass under protection by 2015. That objective is enshrined in the ambitious Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, known to its friends as “EGSPA.”

The government seems to be quite serious about this. Last summer, the province created the Blandford Nature Reserve in Lunenburg County, and also acquired 10,000 hectares of high-value forest land in southwest Nova Scotia from Bowater Mersey Paper. Last fall, it established the 1350-ha. Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area adjacent to the Bayers Lake Industrial Park in Halifax. That swath of land is three times the size of Vancouver's Stanley Park and more than 20 times as large as our own Point Pleasant Park. It contains 18 lakes, more than 50 wetlands, old-growth pine forests, mainland moose and 150 species of birds.

This is a stunning gift to the future – and the province recently nominated an area ten times larger for protection. The 14,000 ha. Ship Harbour Long Lake tract behind the Eastern Shore is one of the last large roadless areas on the Nova Scotia mainland, with river corridors, old-growth forests, plenty of wildlife and more than 50 lakes. Public consultations are going on now – to participate, visit http://www.gov.ns.ca/nse/protectedareas/ – but the tract is expected to be protected by the autumn.

One problem with land conservation in Nova Scotia, the Minister notes, is that we have so little Crown land. Assembling land for protection thus requires much patient negotiation and accommodation with private landowners. About 70% of our land mass is privately owned. On the coast, that figure rises to 95%.

So what about shorelines? Seventy percent of Nova Scotia's population lives along the shore, in 360 coastal communities, and 14% of the province's jobs rely on coastal activity. Nobody in the province lives more than 65 km. from the sea. All Nova Scotians, essentially, are people of the coast.

Mark Parent agrees. Nova Scotia, he says, “is defined by its coastline.” But aside from snippets of shoreline within protected areas, he has no mandate to deal with shorelines. The government's proposed coastal management plan is being developed under the leadership of the Department of Fisheries.

Say that again? Fisheries departments are generally focussed on enhancing the fishery, not on preserving the environment. Similarly, as I found when I was researching the Zenn car, the Department of Transportation assesses electric vehicles on the basis of highway safety. Nothing requires that they consider environmental benefits.

“I know,” nods the Minister. “I get a lot of stuff coming to me that belongs to other ministries like Transportation – bike paths, speed limits and so on. My department will participate in the coastal management plan, but what we really need is a culture shift so that all departments appreciate the environmental aspects of their activities.

“It's actually a horizontal challenge in a vertical structure. Government departments stand beside each other like silos – but environmental issues are global, they don't respect departmental boundaries or any other boundaries. The environment cuts across everything. You can't care for the economy without caring for the environment.”

This is the “huge challenge and opportunity” that prompted the Premier to propose EGSPA and other innovations like the Green Deputies, a forum of deputy ministers who meet regularly to discuss environmental questions across departmental lines.

So the Department of Environment must not only manage its own programs, but also influence the entire agenda of the government -- ?

The Minister smiles. He is actually two ministers in one – a minister of the Crown, and also a minister of the Baptist church..

“Yes,” he says. “Our role is to be the leaven that leaventh the lump.”

-- 30 --

Silver Donald Cameron's books, including The Living Beach, are available at www.capebretonbooks.com

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