Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Pearl in Emerald Necklace ; British Columbia Becomes First Jurisdiction in North America to Meet Key UN Conservation Goal

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Pearl in Emerald Necklace ; British Columbia Becomes First Jurisdiction in North America to Meet Key UN Conservation Goal

Article excerpt

It took eight years of bitter haggling between Canadian environmentalists, native Americans, loggers, and miners. But the result is a benchmark conservation pact that protects a vast sweep of virgin wilderness the size of West Virginia.

The so-called "Mackenzie Decision" approved last month by the provincial government, makes British Columbia the only jurisdiction in North America to meet the UN goal of protecting 12 percent of its land base.

Yet conservation experts on both sides of the US-Canadian border say the 5 million acres set aside, combined with 11 million acres already protected in the adjacent Muskwa-Kechika preserve, stand to yield huge dividends for wildlife protection efforts in the US as well.

"I like to think of this as Canada's gift of wildness to the rest of the world," says British Columbia's Premier Ujjal Dosanjh. "We're very proud of what this accomplishes. In effect, it creates the largest protected area in North America and establishes an important precedent."

The precedent, Mr. Dosanjh notes, is the formation of an uncommon alliance, including diverse economic, social, and cultural interests that often have been at loggerheads over the fate of the continent's last significant spread of untouched forest.

The Mackenzie plan does not exclude industry, but carefully appropriates portions of provincial lands in Muskwa-Kechika to specific uses. It leaves alone, for example, sensitive habitat that is important for wildlife while granting logging and mining companies regulated access to other areas.

"This designation represents a potential turning point to ongoing conflict because it proves that local land-use planning can work," says Wayne Sawchuk, a fur trapper and big-game hunter affiliated with the Chetwynd Environmental Society, a conservation organization involved in the negotiations.

"Here, people realized that the frontier mentality which led to virtually unrestricted exploitation of natural resources has taken a huge toll," Mr. Sawchuk says. "The only way we will save what's left is by carefully zoning the land for certain sustainable uses."

The Muskwa-Kechika is viewed as a crucial pearl in a massive greenbelt necklace called the Yellowstone to Yukon bioregion that follows the backbone of the Rockies and transcends the US-Canada border.

"This is a continental home run for conservation," says Peter Aengst, a spokesman for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. "We're talking about protecting an area over seven times the size of Yellowstone and in a landscape that has the greatest diversity of large mammals in North America."

First conceptualized in the 1990s, the Yellowstone-to-Yukon project area is 2,000 miles long and 300 miles wide - unprecedented in global conservation strategy and akin in its scope to a greenbelt extending from the Florida panhandle to the rocky coastline of Maine.

At one end is the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the US's emblematic sanctuary for abundant wildlife populations. Some 1,500 miles north is the Muskwa-Kechika, an area that has been called "the Serengeti of the North."

While the two ecosystems are far apart, they are linked in ways that conservation biologists are just beginning to understand, says George Smith of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

The Muskwa-Kechika is home to a concentration of large animals that last existed in the American West 150 years ago. …

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