Academics from 10 Quebec universities call for moratorium on development of remaining forests, wetlands in St. Lawrence River Valley in open letter to environment, municipal affairs ministers

Wendy Lisney

Wendy Lisney

Aug 6, 2012 – Montreal Gazette

MONTREAL , August 6, 2012 () – Dozens of professors and researchers from 10 Quebec universities are calling for a moratorium on development of all remaining forests and wetlands in the St. Lawrence River Valley, at least until a province-wide conservation strategy is in place.

In an open letter to Environment Minister Pierre Arcand and Municipal Affairs Minister Laurent Lessard, the 54 academics outline their concern that natural spaces in the most biologically diverse part of the province are inadequately protected and quickly disappearing.

"As scientists, we are very concerned that there is so little forest cover left in southern Quebec, where the majority of our biodiversity is, so we felt it's very import-ant to do something to get politicians to address the issue," during this election campaign, said Tanya Handa, professor of biodiversity science and forest ecology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. (Handa co-authored the letter with UQAM colleagues Alain Fréchette and Pierre Drapeau.)

The Liberals are making much of their plan to develop natural resources in the north with the Plan Nord, but Handa said these scientists are more interested in a "Plan Sud" to protect the few remaining natural spaces south of the St. Lawrence River.

Handa said she and her co-authors decided to go public with their concerns after receiving what they considered an inadequate response from the Liberal government to an earlier letter regarding a small but ecologically rich forest adjacent to Mont St. Bruno provincial park, known as the Forêt des hiron-delles, which is slated for residential development.

Junior Minister Léopold Gaudreau wrote back to say the government has worked hard to protect eight per cent of Quebec territory from development. As for the Forêt des hirondelles, he said public hearings had been held on the provincial park in 2000 and since no one demanded it be added to the park at the time, the government has never had any intention of acquiring it. He also suggested the scientists address their concerns to the city of St. Bruno and other regional authorities.

The scientists responded that this approach to conservation - leaving it up to local officials - has failed in southern Quebec. Only 4.5 per cent of the southern part of the province is protected, they note, and only a tiny portion of that protected land (1.2 per cent) enjoys a truly strict conservation status with no development permitted at all.

"In the St. Lawrence River Valley, where urban and sub-urban development pressure is growing non-stop, these efforts are clearly insufficient," they write.

The group is calling for a moratorium on development while a clear conservation strategy for southern Quebec is put in place. They note the record participation of the public in recent hearings on a more sustainable regional land development plan as evidence the public is waking up to conservation issues. But even though towns like St. Bruno signed on to the new regional development plan, too many ecologically destructive projects were al-ready approved and are going ahead, Handa said.

The authors also demand that governments recognize that transplanting threatened or endangered species to other areas "does not compensate for destroying habitat," and that planting a few young trees in one area does not compensate for destroying whole ecosystems in another.

They also demand changes to the municipal political system so that residents have a true say over the ecologic-ally sensitive areas in their communities.

"Right now decision-making power over these issues is in the hands of a limited number of public officials who are under great pressure (to allow development of natural spaces)," Handa said.

Copyright The Montreal Gazette. All rights reserved.

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