Piecing Together Island Ecology: PEI Strives to Protect 7 Per Cent of Province

In 2010, we Canadians committed to protecting 17 per cent of our lands and fresh water as part of a global push to mitigate mass extinction and climate change. This undertaking gained speed in recent months with February’s $1.3 billion federal budget promise to exactly this effort.

But some provinces are further behind than others in this national push for preservation. At present, we’ve protected 10.6 per cent of Canada’s wilderness, a number we must boost before the 2020 deadline. Prince Edward Island, however, sits at the bottom of the spectrum with only 3.6 per cent protection. This is the offshoot of a 1992 commitment to protect 7 per cent of PEI, now the province’s admittedly modest contribution to the national effort.

“PEI is a highly fragmented province,” said Kate MacQuarrie, director of PEI’s Forests, Fish and Wildlife division.

“By 1900 about 70 per cent of our land had been cleared and converted to agriculture. We’re a heavily disturbed province without huge wilderness areas and about 90 per cent of our land is privately owned. That combination makes protecting land a bit more of a challenge here than in other provinces.”

By way of provincially designated natural areas, wildlife management areas, migratory bird sanctuaries, provincial and national parks, and lands held in trust by charities like the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Island Nature Trust, MacQuarrie came up with the aforementioned 3.6 per cent. In order to hit their overall target, however, her division has been forced to get creative.

PEI’s Natural Areas Protection Act makes it possible for private land owners to enter their properties into “protective covenants,” where they maintain ownership of the land but agree to legally binding restrictions on it. These restrictions would be added to the deed, so that even if it were sold, the covenant would endure.

“Nothing that happens on the property can damage the reason for which it was protected,” said MacQuarrie. “If it’s a forest, you can’t clearcut or convert it. If it’s a salt marsh, you can’t infill it or put a building on top.”

Gentler practices could still take place, however, an emphasis on biodiversity which extends to the province’s designated natural areas. This flexibility gives MacQuarrie and her division room to breath when accommodating economic activities – hunting, trapping, fishing, selective forestry – on a limited number of public acres, and takes some of the pressure off landowners who don’t want to surrender their properties outright. These protected areas, public or otherwise, are not closed off or removed from the economic arena; they are merely lands where sustainability is king.

Another reason careful forestry is permitted on some designated natural areas is that the majority are fragmented by historic harvesting and agriculture. Initiatives such as the division’s Forest Enhancement Program turn selective harvesting into an tool for restoration, allowing foresters to replant with a greater diversity of trees than existed previously, or to trim regrowth and speed up recovery.

Going forward MacQuarrie’s priority is to purchase and protect lands which are close to each another, creating habitat connectivity. She also hopes that Islanders will step up, bringing outstanding properties to the attention of her division and taking advantage of the tax incentives associated with protective covenants.

Kate MacQuarrie in Townshend
Kate MacQuarrie in Townshend, PEI. Zack Metcalfe photo

Ambitious Trust

In the 1960s, the UN’s International Biological Program identified a stretch of old growth hardwood forest north of Souris, PEI, as a place of significant conservation value. Townshend, as it’s now known, was thought to be the finest intact forest still standing on PEI, and while others have since been found, it remains among the most outstanding. It is, mercifully, protected, but not by the province alone.

While the core protected area, some 300 acres, are under MacQuarrie’s stewardship, several hundred acres surrounding it are protected by the Island Nature Trust, a charity working in tandem to accomplish 7 per cent…and perhaps more.

“I think we can reach 10 per cent,” said executive director Megan Harris. “The Island Nature Trust has been working hard to prepare as best we can for a push to meet our provincial target of 7 per cent protected areas by 2020. It will mean a drive to find matching funds from Islanders, the province and private foundations.”

Townshend is an example of what can be accomplished by the duality of charity and government, of the habitats PEI could one day reclaim, and, of course, what’s at risk.

With botany as her scientific specialty, MacQuarrie said that of the 1,500 plant species found on PEI, a full half reside in Townshend; in fact several don’t occur anywhere else. Lichen experts have discovered species here previously unknown to Canada. The Island’s birding community identified Townshend as a signature stop for several species rare in the province, such as the Pileated woodpecker. Strolling through, visitors are dwarfed by Yellow birch and Sugar maple of a size unknown on the Island, their barks blossoming with lichen and their understory dominated by rarities.

“I’m optimistic the province will continue to protect areas and not end our program when our goal is met,” said MacQuarrie. “It’s my hope that we can build on that 7 per cent, making it the floor rather than the ceiling.”

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Rural Delivery Magazine

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