A Saanich councillor has publicly signalled that she continues to oppose current efforts to replace the controversial Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw.
As Saanich council meeting as committee-of-the-whole prepares to resume debate around Natural Saanich, Coun. Rebecca Mersereau said in a long Facebook post that the municipality needs to develop realistic conservation strategies. In her post, Mersereau said she had boiled down her concerns about Natural Saanich into “just two” — the proposed timing of Natural Saanich and its apparent naivety.
Mersereau said staff’s proposed timeline of “developing (not implementing)” Natural Saanich over the next three years will “result in us not being able to pursue other environmental objectives because of our limited financial resources and staff capacity.”
Other environmental objectives that Mersereau identified include adapting public parks and natural assets to climate change and improving stormwater management.
“The relatively undefined scope of the EPF gives me no assurance that these other priorities can also be tackled in the near term,” she said. Mersereau said she is also concerned about Saanich’s tendency to “overcommit and underdeliver when it comes to environmental objectives” based on her reading of Saanich’s strategic plan. “I believe this continues to happen because we haven’t recognized our limitations in terms of staff capacity and have not in turn forced ourselves to make tough decisions about what environmental values we really need to invest in protecting and maintaining the most.”
Mersereau said she is also concerned about an apparent naivety.
“I’m concerned that we are not recognizing how difficult biodiversity conservation is in our Saanich context…and that in turn, we will not set ourselves up for success by developing achievable goals and designing strategies that will realistically enable us to achieve our goals,” she said. “This concern is derived from the overall tone of the [Natural Saanich] report for [council] and its lack of commentary on challenges or implications, the proposed ‘Natural Saanich’ title, and the proposed interim measures presented without clear linkages to attainment of specific goals.”
In her post, Mersereau repeats her demand that Saanich focus its resources on protecting the biodiversity of its parks.
“There are [two] key reasons our parks are or should be low-hanging fruit for biodiversity conservation,” she said. One of them is practical, she said. “[It]’s because they are protected from the pressures of private property since we control them. The other is scientific: because the larger the land mass, the much more likely it is that rare species and biodiversity can successfully persist over time (this is known in population ecology as the species-area relationship).”
Protecting biodiversity on private land, meanwhile, requires several factors. Mersereau said land owners must be aware and willing to comply with regulation; they need some understanding of and appreciation for the ecological value of their land; and they they need to be willing to avoid and remove threats to it. And importantly, biodiversity conservation requires “contiguous viable lands” to succeed. “That is a very tall order and a long (and I suggest unlikely) path to success,” she said.
Critics of Mersereau, however, have argued that private lands can and must be part of a biodiversity strategy.
At least three prominent academics with backgrounds in biology and conservation have raised their voice in favour of Natural Saanich – Briony Penn, a lecturer, author and founding member of the Land Conservancy of BC; Nancy Turner, a professor emeritus in environmental studies at the University of Victoria (UVIC); and Eric Higgs, a leading UVIC professor on the subject, with Higgs directly addressing Mersereau.
Higgs said in his letter that he “admired” Mersereau’s “thoughtful” approach to this “complicated and contentious file” in agreeing with her comments significance of parks and education in any successful program. “I differ with you in one important respect,” he said. “[We] need the small, distributed pockets of biodiversity stretched across public and private lands.”
Mersereau for her part also recommends that council consider alternatives as developed by the environmental and natural areas advisory committee that she chairs. They include among others the development of a technical advisory committee that would support staff in preparing draft goals.