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No one can say Alberta's oil sands have been an easy child. The bitumen pits fuel a third of Canada's economy. They also produce some of the world's most emission-intensive oil, and are responsible for more climate change and environmental stress than conventional oil.

That standoff – is today's revenue worth future ecological disaster? – has been bitter and lasting. The Keystone XL pipeline may be cancelled by environmental protest; ditto Northern Gateway. Conservationists demonize the oil industry, and vice versa. Meanwhile Canada begs the U.S. to buy our dilbit.

And over the entire fracas hang the tatters of Canada's reputation. We've devolved from the world's most visible patch of wilderness to its dirtiest Harry.

Into this thicket an Alberta conservationist has thrown a ground-clearing idea. Harvey Locke is a fourth-generation Albertan, a mainstay of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and the Liberal who almost won Calgary Centre in the last federal election. Mr. Locke was a keynote speaker last week at the 10th World Wilderness Congress in Salamanca, Spain, where he declared that Canada should permanently freeze development on half the Mackenzie River Basin. He also proposed we pay for it with a 1-per-cent levy on every barrel coming out of the oil sands.

All right, calm down. It's a much better idea than you might think.

"Nature needs half" is a trending idea in conservation circles. But it's not new. The Brundtland report called for a tripling of Earth's protected areas, to 12 per cent of its land mass, back in 1987. That ante was later revised to 17 per cent of Earth's land and 10 per cent of its oceans. But world experts (including 1,500 scientists co-ordinated by the Canadian Boreal Initiative) have been calling for a 50-per-cent set-aside since at least 2007 – "half the world for humanity, half for the rest of life," as biologist E.O. Wilson once put it.

None of these warnings have been heeded. As a result, the 2007 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded, "The resilience of many ecosystems … is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of change in climate, associated disturbances … and other global change drivers (especially land-use change, pollution, over-exploitation of resources)."

What would a 1-per-cent surcharge and protecting half the Mackenzie River basin entail? An unprecedented act of federalism to pass along oil-sands revenues, for starters. As Mr. Locke pointed out to me recently in a Banff café, "sharing Alberta's wealth on a royalty basis (as opposed to a grant) hasn't really been done before, among jurisdictions. It would require Canadians to think about this together."

It would also mean designating half of Canada's largest watershed (the 11th largest on the planet, an area the size of Indonesia that stretches from Jasper and the oil sands to the Arctic) as an ecologically intact national park, protected from industrial activity in perpetuity. "Simply put," Mr. Locke recently wrote, "we need to share the world with nature."

That isn't an entirely new idea, either. First nations have long wanted to protect vast swaths of the Mackenzie Basin in Yukon and the Northwest Territories. But territorial governments have resisted tying up land and resources that could finance roads, health care and other jewels of future provincehood. Mr. Locke's proposal solves the land guarantee and the loss of revenue by handing over a modest 1 per cent of the market value of upstream oil-sands product (currently two million barrels a day, about $700-million a year) to the territorial governments, in return for preserving half of the Mackenzie's boreal forests and wetlands.

Lots of other places are trying to give nature half, Mr. Locke notes: Haida Gwaii, Boulder (Colo.), Bhutan, the Seychelles, the Serengeti, the Canadian Rockies and large swaths of western Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, to name just a few. Rewilding has even taken root in fancy-pants Europe.

One objection to his proposal, ironically, comes from the fractious environmental movement: Establishing a park doesn't directly reduce oil-sands emissions. But Mr. Locke points out that carbon dioxide emissions are only one of at least three serious environmental problems staring the world down – the other two being fresh-water use and loss of natural habitat. The "1/2 + 1" proposal is a shot in the arm for all three.

"Twenty per cent of all the emissions in the world come from destroying primary ecosystems," Mr. Locke points out. "If you took every car in the world off the road, it would have less impact on reducing CO2 in the atmosphere than if we stopped destroying primary ecosystems."

The other source of resistance to the proposal, of course, will be the resource industries that hope to exploit the Mackenzie and its pristine surround. But the 1/2 + 1 proposal would also help refurbish the oil industry's ragged reputation for self-enrichment and environmental short-sightedness. By the federal government's own estimate, Canadians had spent at least $40-billion on the oil sands, in the form of federal incentives and tax breaks, by 2005. (The International Institute for Sustainable Development has estimated that federal and provincial subsidies to the entire oil and gas industry came to $2.3-billion in 2009 alone.)

"It was a spectacular technological achievement," Mr. Locke insists. "But it's now creating a climate problem. So just like we had the technological problem of commercializing this oil in the 1990s, why don't we do something about the environmental problem now?"

Finally, Mr. Locke's proposal would restore Canada's environmental reputation, so badly bruised by the Harper government's one-note (and so far unsuccessful) oil-sands campaign in Washington. Mr. Locke again: "I think if we protected, in an integrated way, half of one of the largest watersheds on Earth, people would say, 'Hey, what's going on up there? What happened? This is making sense.' "

Sadly, it's the small stuff, the picayune interprovincial bickering, that stands to defeat our chance to make ecological history as a nation. "The first thing we have to do is get over our parochialism," Mr. Locke says. "Is this just Alberta's wealth, and Alberta's problem? Or can we Canadians think through this challenge and do some good with it?"

We've done it as a nation in the past – wartime, the railway, the St. Lawrence Seaway, our national parks. We could do it again with the Mackenzie watershed. But we don't care about much as a nation any more.