Conservation and economy can co exist, says new CPAWS director

Most Yukoners support nature conservation, but that doesn’t make Mike Dehn’s job any easier.

Most Yukoners support nature conservation, but that doesn’t make Mike Dehn’s job any easier.

Wanting to protect wildlife is one thing, but coming to a consensus on how much to protect and where to protect it is another, says the new executive director of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society-Yukon.

Developing a viable mix of conservation priorities with healthy economic ones is a way to achieve consensus, said Dehn in an interview.

“Most people are into interested in preservation for it’s own sake, and I certainly don’t disagree with that value,” said Dehn.

“But the fact is we all have to eat and, somehow or other, we have to make money off the area we live. People don’t realize there are a lot of jobs that can flow from conservation, just as they can flow from extraction.”

After serving as a member on the society’s board of directors for 18 months, Dehn was appointed executive director in May.

He worked as a private consultant in the Yukon for about 14 years before taking the job.

He’s one-part economist, one-part biologist — he holds advanced degrees in both — so it’s no surprise he wants the society to get die-hard conservationists and die-hard developers to work together.

“We can move past the times when people with those two emphases needed to be at loggerheads,” said Dehn. “We need to convince people there’s a lot to be gained from conservation.

“The problem has been that the powers that be have often focused only on extractive — mineral, oil and gas — exploration as the basis for the economy. The fact is that has not done that well for us.”

A conservation-based economy would include eco-tourism and, through proper planning, sustainable forestry and mining industries, said Dehn.

But it would also require significant chunks of protected wilderness to draw people into the mixed economy.

And each community would develop its own plan.

The society has moved in this direction before, but it’s time for greater emphasis on learning how natural-resource extraction can co-exist with conservation, said Dehn, who vows to continue with the Three Rivers and Peel River basin conservation project.

The basin’s bird-filled wetlands and its healthy populations of grizzly bears, Dall’s sheep, caribou and other wildlife are threatened by oil and mineral interests, which has prompted the society to champion the region.

Dehn also pledges to work on the southeastern forestry plan, which seeks to create sustainable logging and ecotourism in one of Canada’s most important ecosystems.

Protecting these areas will help slow the affects of climate change in the Yukon, he said.

“We need to have a serious discussion about, not only how we can reduce the effects of climate change, but how can we protect ourselves given that climate change is going to occur,” he said.

“One of the options is for large protected areas to give species of animals and plants an opportunity to find appropriate habitats as the climate changes.

“It’s important to remember large boreal forests areas reduce the carbon emissions elsewhere. There are both conservation and economic aspects to that.”

About 77 per cent of the Yukon remains wilderness, according the society, and the percentage of designated protected areas in the Yukon recently increased from 8.7 to about 11.8.

The society helped protect 1.2 million hectares, including three new territorial parks, according to its website.

There has been some progress towards greater awareness of the need for conservation from the Yukon government, but it’s far from perfect, he added.

“I’ll let the Yukon government speak for itself as to what it’s done for conservation.”

The society, which is funded by private individual donations and membership dues, is not a consensus builder, but a participant in consensus.

The organization will strengthen relationships with local non-government organizations, like the Yukon Conservation Society, to improve conservation efforts, he said.

“What I would like to do is find ways of co-operating with all aspects of society so we get win-wins for everybody, and there are ways to do that,” said Dehn.

More involvement from First Nations — whose traditional territories cover much of the land the society would like to see protected — would also strengthen efforts to lobby the government, he said.

“The important thing now is that we have a good opportunity, and the support in the Yukon and Canada, for increased (wildlife) protection,” said Dehn.

“It’s in the Yukon’s interest to pursue large scale conservation, where it’s appropriate.

“Conservation just takes a long time.”