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Saturnina Island from water

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A non-profit environmental organization has purchased some of British Columbia’s most threatened ecosystems, promptly ensuring that no logging or development will take place in their old-growth forests.

Only fragments of those forests remain along the province’s southeastern coastline on the Salish Sea, home to threatened species and rare plants. When two small islands and a portion of a third were offered up for sale recently, the BC Parks Foundation pounced with an offer.

The acquisitions, funded with a $4-million donation from the family of Lululemon’s billionaire founder, Chip Wilson, will protect almost 150 hectares of these rare and exceptionally biodiverse forests and coastal bluffs. The islands – West Ballenas, Saturnina and part of Lasqueti – will never be developed, although local governments and Indigenous communities will determine just what type of protections will be put in place.

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While the B.C. government wades through a years-long process to meet its election commitment to protect old-growth forests, the BC Parks Foundation has been crowdfunding to protect these endangered ecosystems. In 2019, it raised $3-million to purchase more than 800 hectares in Princess Louisa Inlet on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, saving those pristine forests from logging. Earlier this year, it helped establish a 3,500-hectare conservancy within the Tahltan Nation’s territory in northwestern B.C.

“We have seen tremendous success, with thousands of people around the world recognizing [that] these places are cathedrals, that they are our life-support system,” said Andrew Day, the foundation’s chief executive officer, in an interview. “There is this recognition that we can protect these fragile areas, and it has inspired this upwelling of goodwill with pensioners and students and major donors like the Wilsons.”

The provincial government has come under fire because, apart from small and temporary deferrals, it has continued to allow logging in ancient forests.

It also abandoned another 2017 promise. The Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy was tasked with drafting endangered species legislation, but George Heyman said that work has been dropped from his assignments.

“Legislation is not off the table from my perspective, but we have a number of steps to go through to determine what the best and most effective tool or tools to do that would be,” he said in an interview. “I have come to the view that lurching from species to species protection is not as effective as taking an ecosystem, biodiversity habitat approach.”

Mr. Heyman said he does feel an urgency to act. “Every day that goes by without taking action to protect irreplaceable biodiversity means a loss,” he said. But despite the twin concerns of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, change is slow to come.

Meanwhile, the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) remains in place – but rarely allows for the prompt development of recovery plans.

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Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, is working to “modernize” the act. “We have looked to focus on priority places and species, which means focusing a little bit more on ecosystems in areas of high biodiversity value. That would include, in B.C., long-term protection for old-growth forests, which tend to be rich in biodiversity and intact ecosystems,” he said in an interview.

Canada, along with the other G7 countries, has committed to conserving or protecting at least 30 per cent of its lands, inland waters and coastal and marine areas by 2030. As an interim step, Ottawa has set a target of 25 per cent by 2025, but it has not mapped out a plan to get there.

Like his B.C. counterpart, Mr. Wilkinson says action is urgently needed. “We have almost 700 species in this country that are listed or are in the process of being listed [as endangered]. Many of them are in a very dire state. The world has lost 60 per cent of its biodiversity in the last 40 years. It is time that governments of all levels really took it seriously.”

Mr. Day says his organization can help. “There is a recognition now that land has as much value – or more – intact than it does developed. That’s an important shift here,” he said. “If governments decide to protect all old growth in B.C., I think we could raise the money to do that.

“It’s not doom and gloom, it’s about what people can do and what people are doing. That is a powerful thing right now.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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