Purchasing for protection: A perpetual Sophie’s choice for conservationists

When property prices are too high to protect these places via purchase, can we count on public policy tools to safeguard CDF forests from further degradation?

Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Pender Islands Conservancy recently announced the success of their second joint land acquisition campaign in the last two years. The KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest campaign was completed six months ahead of schedule, protecting 45-acres of Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) forest and associated habitats on S,DÁYES (Pender Island), W̱SÁNEĆ Territory.

Our organizations should have spent the early months of 2023 in celebration. Afterall, CDF habitats are among the rarest and most threatened in BC, and due to high rates of development and extent of private land,  there are limited opportunities to protect remaining large tracts of land in this region. Undoubtedly, perpetually safeguarding this land is a conservation win. But, for land trusts and other conservation practitioners, for every conservation win there is often an ecological loss. 

Prior to launching the Kingfisher campaign, Raincoast and the Conservancy visited an 8-acre forested property upland from Medicine Beach (E,HO,) Nature Sanctuary on Pender. This property was identified as having high conservation value due to its connection to Medicine Beach and neighboring intact habitats and other ecological features like known nesting trees. But as news of imminent development plans on the land now known as Kingfisher Forest spread through the Pender community, our organizations had to make a choice; we couldn’t protect both. 

Just over a year later, a significant portion of the forest we were forced to pass over for protection has been hauled off the land on the back of a logging truck. The trees that remain stand as a living testament to the failures of local environmental protection policy throughout the range of the CDF zone. 

Working in land conservation in one of the most expensive regions of the country is riddled with these sorts of decisions. Unlike the rest of BC, where the majority of land (95%) is under public management, 80% in the CDF is privately owned.

But, when property prices are too high to protect these places via purchase, can we count on public policy tools to safeguard CDF forests from further degradation?

Experience has suggested we cannot.

Consider the District of Saanich: in 2017 District Council voted 5-4 to rescind a suite of Environmental Development Permit areas (EDPAs) designed to protect ecologically sensitive areas, just five years after their initial implementation. This decision was based on two years of pressure from 3% of the property owners impacted by their implementation. Most of these property owners argued that the implementation of the EDPAs 1) adversely impacted property values (despite a local study (and a body of peer-reviewed literature) proving this to be untrue) and 2) followed imprecise mapping due to some EDPA boundaries intersecting structures. 

In a zone as rare and threatened as the CDF, even sensitive ecosystems that have been impacted by human activity are worthy of protection and meaningful process to inform decision-making.  And that is what local policy tools like bylaws and EDPAs have been designed to do: encourage meaningful process. They are not completely restrictive. Rather, they ask property owners to stop and consider the natural ecosystem values they are fortunate enough to have under their care prior to proceeding with development plans.

Zoning, EDPAs, and bylaws can all be effective tools to protect ecosystems within the CDF, but they must be embedded within a wider framework of conservation policy, properly enforced, and have the support of local residents who understand that the land they own is representative of a globally rare collection of plants and animals. Both the province and local governments in this region have avoided accountability, lobbing the political hot potato of ecological protection back and forth. Each time they drop the ball  it is the imperiled ecosystems of the CDF that get burned.

As the climate continues to change, the need for functioning ecosystems will become increasingly apparent. Though councils from across the CDF region, including the District of Saanich and the Islands Trust, have made Climate Emergency declarations, little meaningful action has materialized when it comes to protecting what’s left of the CDF zone.

Ultimately, the province needs to create enabling conditions for local governments to adequately protect local ecosystems, as they did with the implementation of the Riparian Areas Regulation under the Fish Protection Act in 2004. Local governments should be at the forefront of making change on the ground, but without the support of the province and local residents the future resilience of CDF forests and associated habitats is increasingly uncertain.

A version of this article was previously published in the Gulf Islands Driftwood.

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