Province in danger of missing protected lands goal, but environment minister vows to stay the course

Prince Albert National Park -- Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald

The provincial government is close to falling short of its goal to protect 12 per cent of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in Saskatchewan by the end of 2020, but Environment Minister Dustin Duncan says they still hope to hit that target in the next few years.

The government aimed to have more than 7.8 million hectares of land protected by the end of this year. According to the 2020 Climate Resilience in Saskatchewan Report released on Friday, they are roughly 1.4 million hectares short of that goal. The province added 700,000 hectares of protected land since 2018, but will need to double that number in 2020 to hit its target.

Despite the setback, Duncan said he was confident the project is headed in the right direction.

“Absolutely, it is feasible,” he said when about the 12 per cent goal. “We’ve got to work with all our stakeholders and other ministries within government. A part of that is balancing off and ensuring that we are doing a good job of protecting areas that have been designated, while also ensuring that economic growth can take place.”

Increasing land use pressures such as industrial development, urban growth and recreation use are the biggest challenges. Such activities can decrease the ecological value of the land, or alter it so it no longer represents the natural landscape. Private land ownership and economic development are also among the government’s concerns.

“In Northern Saskatchewan, even though Crown land dominates, many interests must be considered and weighed to achieve a balance between conservation and economic development,” reads the 2020 report.

Duncan said they plan on developing stronger partnerships with northern Indigenous people to help reach their goal. The government wants to create Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, something that’s already being done in other parts of Canada. The first such partnership began in 2018 with the 14,218 square km Edéhzhíe Protected Area in the Northwest Territories.

There are also plans for additional discussions with the federal government. Duncan said they’ve had a good relationship so far, but he doesn’t expect to get to the 12 per cent mark via a large jump in federally protected land. Instead, he wants the feds recognize the conservation work done by private land owners.

Protected lands allow the provincial government to monitor the natural response to climate change, while also provides a reservoir or refuge for at-risk species, and maintenance of culturally or historically important sites. Protected lands are found in each of Saskatchewan’s 11 ecoregions.

The list of protected lands includes provincial and crown pastures, wildlife habitat protections zones, wilderness parks, national parks, game preserves and migratory bird sanctuaries, among others.

The protected land section was one of 25 measures included in the 2020 Climate Resilience in Saskatchewan Report. The report tracks the government’s commitment to the Prairie Resilience climate change strategy.

This is the second such report from the Ministry of Environment. The first was delivered in 2018.

“We’re trying to demonstrate to the people of Saskatchewan that we take climate change very seriously,” Duncan said. “It’s a very important topic, and we want to ensure that we’re reporting on … how we are addressing this issue, (and) also that Saskatchewan is resilient to the ongoing effects of climate change.”