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Located southeast of Revelstoke, the new Incomappleux Conservancy is home to forests that support rare and endangered species, and old-growth cedar and hemlock trees.Paul Zizka/Handout

The British Columbia government has just created a major conservation area that it bills as one of the most significant new protected areas in a decade. To meet its lofty environmental goals, it will need to create many more protected areas like the Incomappleux Valley in the coming years: the equivalent of 175 more over the next seven years.

Canada also needs B.C. to succeed if it is to meet its own promises at the COP15 biodiversity conference last year. Despite the strong political alignment between the two governments, a nature agreement that would fast-track conservation has proved elusive.

The federal government has committed to reach “30 by 30,″ the shorthand phrase for 30 per cent protected areas by the year 2030. Further, it has promised that it won’t pad the numbers by protecting barren landscapes, and has been working to identify key biodiversity areas that are at risk.

Starting with Canada’s first national park in 1885, the country has managed to set aside almost 15 per cent of its lands and waterways. Finding new, biologically important greenspace in the face of development pressure today is not getting easier, as the battle over Ontario’s Greenbelt makes clear.

British Columbia, with one-10th of the country’s land base and an outsized share of Canada’s biodiversity, has protected a greater share of its lands than any other province or territory.

But it still needs to add another 10 million hectares of protected areas to hit its own 30-by-30 target.

“It’s an ambitious goal,” Nathan Cullen, B.C.’s Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, said in an interview. “Our biodiversity is so rich and things we are trying to protect, like the Incomappleux Valley, are so rare.”

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The new Incomappleux Conservancy spans more than 58,000 hectares of rare intact interior rainforest in B.C.Paul Zizka/Handout

In a province where land-use decisions have long been mired in clashes over resource development, and by the failure to settle treaties with Indigenous peoples, creating new protected areas takes time – often years. But some First Nations have already set the table for conservation and are waiting for B.C. and Canada to ratify.

The Taku River Tlingit in B.C.’s Northwest have declared their intent to protect more than one million hectares of the largest intact watershed on the Pacific coast of North America.

Their neighbours to the east, the Kaska Dena, have mapped out a conservation area called Dene Kʼéh Kusān. And the Kanaka Bar Indian Band in B.C.’s Interior has mapped out the portion of their traditional territories that they want protected from development, including one of the province’s rarest and most endangered old-growth forests.

All three of those communities have declared an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, or ICPA, which Canada and B.C. agree is the key to meeting their targets. The mechanism for implementation, however, is still being developed.

Mr. Cullen said it is a model that is stirring international interest as a modern, decolonized alternative to creating new park areas for conservation.

“The ICPA model, I think, is much more durable,” Mr. Cullen said. “It’s a very different way to doing things. But in 2023, it is the only way of doing things.”

The new Incomappleux Conservancy reflects that shift away from drawing up new park boundaries. The deal was brokered by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, with corporate, private and federal financing, and Indigenous consent. The Sn̓ʕaýckstx (Sinixt) Confederacy welcomed the protection of the valley, saying it will allow its people to continue their ancient role of projecting the land and habitat.

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Incomappleux protected areas.Handout

Located southeast of Revelstoke, the conservancy spans more than 58,000 hectares of rare intact Interior rainforest – an ecosystem so endangered it was considered to be on the brink of collapse. It features old-growth cedar and hemlock trees that are estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. The forest supports rare and endangered species, and provides habitat for grizzly and black bears.

The province praised its corporate partners for making the Incomappleux project viable: Lumber producer Interfor Corp. was paid $4-million in exchange for releasing 75,000 hectares of its forest tenure.

Charlotte Dawe, a conservation campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, said B.C. may have been lucky with Interfor’s consent, but there are tougher decisions ahead.

“Obviously to get to 30 by 30, we need so many more protected areas exactly similar to this,” she said in an interview. “It might be setting a precedent of only protecting areas where logging companies are willing to play ball and get paid out to walk away. That’s why we’re concerned, because the reality is, that’s just not going to happen in most of the places that we need to have protected.”

Mr. Cullen said the cost of setting up the Incomappleux Conservancy is a reminder that protecting valuable land is expensive, and he remains hopeful that Canada and B.C. will soon reach a nature agreement, such as the one signed between the federal government and the Yukon in December.

“The negotiations with the federal government with respect to their 30-by-30 ambitions are integral to this, because often, this is not cheap.“

B.C. and Canada were expected to announce a nature agreement during the global conference on biodiversity, COP15, held in Montreal in December. But the province has not completed its consultations with First Nations leaders. Mr. Cullen said he is confident a deal is ready to be signed once that consultation is complete, because the two governments have a mutual interest in helping each other reach 30 by 30.

“We need each other,” he said.