Ottawa pays it forward to extend biosphere protection

Monte Stewart
October 12, 2022

Federal funding of almost $1 million to protect a UNESCO-designated biosphere on Canada’s West Coast will help fill the gaps between protected areas, says the head of the group receiving the financial assistance.

Ottawa committed Sept. 1 to provide B.C.’s Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative Society with $926,000 over four years. The Howe Sound region became Canada’s 19th UNESCO biosphere in September 2021.

Plans call for the Howe Sound society to share most of the federal money with project partners.

“This funding gives us tremendous support to build capacity for working specifically with our partners in the region and authorities on strengthening biodiversity conservation,” said Ruth Simons, president of the society, which manages the biosphere.

“This funding is targeted in the areas that are not currently protected, but in those areas we refer to as buffer zones, to strengthen other effective conservation measures so that, in total, we can help contribute towards Canada's targets of conserving 25% of land and 25% of the sea by 2025," she told Research Money prior to a news conference in Lions Bay, B.C. last month.

Money coming from nature legacy program

The federal funds are being distributed through Ottawa's Enhanced Nature Legacy program, which, starting in 2021, provides $2.3 billion of funding over five years, to Environment and Climate Change Canada, Parks Canada, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

The program is also providing $200 million over three years to Infrastructure Canada for the purpose of creating a natural infrastructure fund designed to mitigate climate change and prevent expensive natural disasters.

According to a federal backgrounder, "A well-connected network of protected and conserved areas is key to preserving intact ecosystems that maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services." The document outlines the nature legacy program's goals, other than those alluded to by Simons, as including:

  • More protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitats
  • Greater Indigenous-group conservation leadership to advance reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples
  • Support for healthy natural infrastructure and expanded access to nature
  • Thousands of new jobs in nature conservation and management
  • Supporting Indigenous nature guardians
  • Preventing species at risk of imminent disappearance.

Other program-funded projects goals include:

  • Building resilience to threats associated with climate change
  • Contributing to "ecological integrity and connectivity with benefits for the protection of biodiversity and habitat at a lower cost"
  • Increasing community access to nature by creating public greenspaces and other outdoor recreation areas

According to a federal government news release on the funding announcement, the Howe Sound biosphere contains more than 200,000 acres of land and sea and is home to at least 39 species listed under the federal Species at Risk Act.

Simons stated the biosphere has 175 species that are considered to be threatened or endangered “with biodiversity and habitat loss at the heart of the issue.” Patrick Weiler, a Liberal MP whose riding includes the biosphere, said during the news conference that the ecosystem is home to more than 700 terrestrial land species, thousands of marine animals, and an untold number of plants, fungi, and other organisms.

Simons told Research Money that her group is working with partners to identify priority projects. She said during the news conference that the society has already started monitoring the coastal tail frog — a species at risk — on Gambier Island, in collaboration with two conservancies. The society will also use some of the federal money to hire staff for the first time, covering one-and-a-half salaries.

“We’re not using this money for a lot of overhead,” she said. “It’s going to go, we hope, mostly to the projects.”

She said the society has a partnership agreement in the works with North Vancouver-based Capilano University, as part of an effort to connect more youth with the land, noting that the school’s 2030 vision statement is aligned with UNESCO biosphere region objectives. The society also has projects under development with the University of British Columbia, the British Columbia Institute of Technology (more commonly known as BCIT), Squamish, B.C.-based Quest University, and Simon Fraser University, she added, pointing out that the universities have been doing research in Howe Sound for many years.

Biospheres strive for sustainability

Howe Sound, the world's southernmost fjord, is located between West Vancouver and the town of Squamish.

According to the Howe Sound Biosphere Region website, biospheres are areas of global ecological significance, in which people strive for sustainability under an ongoing commitment to the UN. Although biospheres are not parks and carry no legal authority, people in the regions are inspired to find ways to live and work in harmony with nature.

The Howe Sound biosphere is one of 738 biosphere reserves contained in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, which spans 134 countries and includes 2.5 million Canadian residents and 257 million people globally.

Ottawa forwarding some funds early

Terms of the federal contribution require the Howe Sound society to match the federal funding, but Ottawa is already forwarding funds intended for priority projects.

“What is a bit unique here is that, usually, we will ask recipients of federal government dollars to show that they have matching dollars — not this time,” said Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault during the news conference. “What we're doing is, we're giving them money ahead of time.

“So it's both a testimony to the work that is being done, but also a leap of faith where we're not sure, but we're convinced, that the organization will be able to do that.”

Squamish First Nation pleased with support

The Squamish First Nation, whose traditional territory includes the biosphere, will also team up with the society on projects.

“[Squamish] people are stewards of this land and always have been," said Joyce Williams, a Squamish First Nation councillor, during the news conference. “While our teachings tell us that territory is one interconnected biosphere, many different levels of government and Canadian law influence how the biosphere is looked after. This funding will help Squamish Nation and our trusted allies start to implement our Indigenous laws and fill those jurisdictional gaps.”

Williams said the Squamish Nation is “very pleased” that Ottawa is recognizing the efforts of her government and the Howe Sound society.

“This funding is a good first step towards recognizing what we can do together if we are paddling together in unity within [harmony]," she said. "These funds will help provide the necessary resources to start this journey together in a good way.”

Simons, a retired travel insurance company president and CEO who has lived in Howe Sound her entire life, told Research Money that the society also plans to partner with businesses. But it is hard to say what the projects will be, because the society has worked primarily with non-government organizations and academia thus far.

Rockfish to be monitored

Adam Taylor, a volunteer director with the Marine Life Sanctuary Society of B.C. (MLSSBC), told Research Money that his group has been assured a share of the federal money and must match it.

MLSSBC conducts what he called “citizen science” on water-based species, including glass sponge reef, and shares data with the federal fisheries and oceans ministry (DFO) and local and regional governments.

Taylor said his group is partnering with the Howe Sound society to monitor rockfish and help prevent poaching that includes fishing on glass sponge reefs.

Howe Sound is closed to rockfish harvesting and the region’s sponge-reef fishing is subject to specified closure periods. Taylor’s group hopes to share data with DFO that could simplify regulations on rockfish and sponge-reef fishing.

“Whether it’s this particular funding or some DFO funding, it would help our projects get off the ground,” said Taylor.

Volunteers could also have out-of-pocket expenses covered, potentially leading to more participation.

“Instead of donating their time and their equipment and their own money, now, it's just their time and equipment,” he said. “So it makes it easier.”

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