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Leef touts conservation funding

The federal government has unveiled its latest plan for conserving Canada's wilderness.

The federal government has unveiled its latest plan for conserving Canada’s wilderness.

Under the Harper government’s new national conservation plan, the government is promising to spend $252 million over the next five years to bolster conservation and ecosystem protection across the country.

“As the vice-chair of the Conservative hunting and angling caucus ... I am very keen to make sure we move our agenda forward when it comes to the protection and preservation of our wildlife,” said Yukon MP Ryan Leef at a news conference in the Elijah Smith building on Tuesday.

Leef began by listing his government’s accomplishments in the area of conservation since taking office in 2006.

Those milestones, he said, include securing more than 4,000 square kilometres of “ecologically sensitive private land,” expanding the Nahanni National Park Reserve six-fold and working to clean up polluted lakes and rivers.

“These funds will target enhanced and new initiatives such as securing ecologically sensitive lands, restoring wetlands, supporting voluntary stewardship of animals and habitats and strengthening marine and coastal conservation,” Leef said.

The plan will focus on three priority areas: conserving Canada’s lands and waters, restoring Canada’s ecosystems and connecting Canadians to nature.

“It’s that latter part that I certainly find an exciting and worthy endeavour,” Leef said.

“There’s a neat saying that kids won’t remember their best day of TV, and my son won’t remember his best day of video games, though he plays them every day.

“I think it’s really important that we as Yukoners and Canadians make sure that we provide an opportunity at the federal level for Canadians to connect directly with nature, which is such an important part of our national identity and our national discussion,” Leef said.

That may seem surprising given the amount of criticism the federal government took over severe cuts to Parks Canada across the country in 2012.

That year the Harper government slashed Parks Canada’s budget by $29 million. Six hundred employees lost their jobs, including those who ran historical tours at the S.S. Klondike in Whitehorse and Dredge No. 4 in Dawson City. In the place of those public servants, private businesses were given the opportunity to run the tours themselves. Search and rescue capabilities in the back country were also curtailed across the country.

When asked whether the federal government was duplicating something that was already covered in Parks Canada’s mandate, Leef responded that the new funding program will be more broad and allow for the protection and conservation of lands outside national park boundaries.

“Parks Canada’s mandate is really connected to and exclusive to the national park network in our country, and we have a responsibility to make sure that the areas of nature that Canadians can enjoy are not just national parks and marine protected areas but all natural wild spaces in our country,” Leef said.

The federal government is committing a hefty chunk of change to Parks Canada, but not to pay for its operations. The federal 2014 budget committed nearly $400 million to fix up aging bridges, dams, roads and other infrastructure in national parks. Four million of that will be spent in the next two years, with the rest of it deferred until 2016 or beyond.

“Naturally with those investments as you make our national parks areas more accessible, more available with newer infrastructure, invariably that is going to lead to more traffic and more revenue to our parks and they in turn will be able to take those dollars and reinvest them in national programming,” he said.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has been harshly critical of that funding model, arguing that fixing up roads and buildings won’t help the parks system fulfill its role.

“Recent budget cuts to Parks Canada’s have significantly hampered the agency’s ability to deliver on its mandate of maintaining and restoring ecological integrity in our national parks,” the society said in a February news release.

“What’s really needed to ‘protect and preserve’ our national parks is funding for Parks Canada to fully implement its science-based conservation programs, and to continue to create new parks, in partnership with local communities and indigenous peoples.

“Investing in roads and bridges is not an investment in protecting our natural heritage and we shouldn’t pretend that it is,” the release said.

The government has also taken flak for what many call the gutting of important environmental regulations like the Navigable Waters Protection Act and loosening rules around energy extraction projects.

When questioned about his government’s track record on other environmental legislation, Leef said that this new program isn’t meant to replace the Environmental Protection Act. Instead, it is intended to ensure that Canadians themselves are engaged with nature and the outdoors.

This new federal program is a funding pool that partners, including municipalities, environmental groups, hunters and anglers, landowners and community groups, can use “to take practical actions to safeguard the land and water around them,” Leef said.

Not all the money doled out will be project based, however. Leef explained that there are some groups who do and will continue to get core funding. Other groups can apply and the decision will be based on merit, he said.

That makes it hard to say how much of this money will end up in the Yukon, he said. What money does end up here won’t be decided until the strategy is fully rolled out, Leef said.

Contact Jesse Winter at