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opinion

Peter Christie is a freelance science writer and author.

This week was an affront to conservation not just in the United States but everywhere. Too bad Canada is in no position to play the critic. We should be.

On Monday, Donald Trump shrank a vast protected area in Utah known as Bears Ears National Monument to almost a 10th of its size and cut another, Grand Staircase-Escalante, by half. Another 25 protected lands under review by the Trump administration may also shrink or be opened to development, including Gold Butte in Nevada and Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and California.

Mr. Trump's actions – described as the largest elimination of protected areas in American history – fly in the face of worldwide efforts to set aside more wilderness to help stem the tide of vanishing wildlife. Under the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, almost 200 countries around the globe have pledged to, among other things, protect at least 17 per cent of all wild lands and inland waters by 2020.

Scientists say protecting wilderness is crucial to help end the accelerating extinction of world wildlife. The loss of species, researchers say, now rivals some of the cataclysmic extinctions of the distant past, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Yet, while the United States (not a party to the convention) currently protects about 13 per cent of its wild lands, Canada protects even less. With just more than 10 per cent of parkland and protected areas across the country, Canada ranks last among all Group of Seven countries for saving natural spaces, and we're well behind other large countries, such as China, Brazil and Australia.

We used to be an example: Canada was the first industrialized country to sign the United Nations convention at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and we host its international headquarters in Montreal. Back then, prime minister Brian Mulroney – who also created eight new national parks, passed the Environmental Protection Act and signed the Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement to halt acid rain – saw Canada's environmental role as "claiming the high ground."

Last week, a national survey by Earnscliffe Strategy Group showed most Canadians also want Canada to take a lead on conservation. Canada is steward to almost a quarter of the planet's last intact forests, a quarter of its wetlands, a fifth of its fresh water and almost a third of its coastlines. The survey said 87 per cent of Canadians want to expand the country's protected areas to meet or exceed the 17-per-cent threshold.

In Ottawa, meanwhile, the Trudeau government appears to be preparing for action. Plans are afoot, it says, to almost double Canada's parks and protected areas in time for the 2020 deadline. In June, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna introduced a National Advisory Panel and an Indigenous Circle of Experts to guide the process. These panels are expected to complete their reports in the coming weeks.

National, provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments, groups and stakeholders are also involved. According to Parks Canada, it's the first time in more than 25 years that federal and provincial governments have agreed to work together to increase protected areas.

But protecting land is costly, and there's little indication so far that the current 2018 federal budget process is paying much attention. A widespread lack of public awareness – of conservation generally and of our international obligations under the UN convention – doesn't help.

Mr. Trump's efforts to dismantle national-monument protected lands on our continent should serve as a wake-up call. Shrinking protected wild lands imperils not just creatures and plants but also fresh air and fresh water and the elegant natural machinery that keeps the planet – and us – alive.

At the UN climate conference in Bonn, Germany, last month, Ms. McKenna met the U.S. President's praise of coal by helping to lead an international coalition to phase it out entirely. Many cheered Canada for its rebuke-by-example of U.S. environmental recklessness.

We need to step up again. Committing to and succeeding in our own push for parks would be an exemplary contrast to Mr. Trump's senseless land-conservation rollback. Canadians want to be in the lead on conservation, and this is our chance. Ottawa needs to fully invest in – and raise the profile of – its current efforts to get there.