The province of P.E.I. is still far short of a decades-old target when it comes to protected land.
Officials with the department responsible say that despite missing the 7-per-cent target by the end of 2020, work on land protection is underway, and remains a priority.
Natalie Jameson, P.E.I.'s minister of environment, water and climate change, said going from 3.6 per cent in August of 2019 to 4.4 per cent at the end of 2020 represents "adding an additional 12,000 acres to our protected areas, which is an increase of nearly 25 per cent."
In order to reach the target of 7 per cent, a total of 98,103 acres would need to be designated as protected by the province, up from 62,226 acres at the 4.4-per-cent level.
"I think we just need to look at the success we've had over the last year and a half," said Jameson.
"Ultimately, we did increase our protected lands by 25 per cent. And if we can continue at that rate, I think that there's some real positive outcomes."
Initial goal was set for year 2000
Back in the 1990s, the provincial government of the day set a goal of protecting 7 per cent of the land on P.E.I. by the year 2000 — areas such as salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, bogs, sand dunes, and forests.
The goal was to protect those areas from development, agricultural conversation, or timber harvest — and preserve portions of land for Islanders and visitors to enjoy for generations to come.
As of 2018, 3.5 per cent of the Island's land was under protection, so the then-Liberal government set the end of 2020 as a new target date. By December, that share of land protected had increased by just under 1 percentage point, to 4.4 per cent.
Jameson would not offer a new target date to reach that 7-per-cent goal. She did say that an extensive review is underway of all public lands to determine areas of ecological importance, with the findings available to the public as soon as March. Timelines should be clearer then, she added.
"I think it's important that as a province, we have ambitious targets," said Jameson.
"Certainly there is still a lot of work to do, but I think that we all recognize that this is a unique situation that we're in here on Prince Edward Island, where the majority of our land is privately owned. And I think that it requires government to work with our partners and landowners to achieve the 7 per cent."
Small plots being donated
In addition to the fact that approximately 90 per cent of the land on P.E.I. is in private hands, another barrier to speedy land protection is the population density on the Island — and the fact that purchased or donated parcels of land are much smaller here than they would be elsewhere in Canada.
"We don't have the benefit of having large swaths of provincial land or Crown land like other provinces," said Lanna Campbell, program director for the Nature Conservancy of Canada in Prince Edward Island, a group that works closely with the province to help meet land conservation targets.
"The province can't, you know, with the swipe of a pen, make huge properties protected, so the conversations that need to happen here are with Islanders. And that's what takes a long time."
She said it also takes a long time — often years — to come to agreements with landowners on the sale or donation of land.
"People hold onto land," Campbell said. "Once we have priority areas on P.E.I. that we're looking toward acquiring… then the conversations start. And a conversation with a landowner can take multiple years, until they're ready to see that land sold or donated for protection."
Fund boosting preservation
Meanwhile, officials with Island Nature Trust say the work they do to secure and protect land in Prince Edward Island has been given a boost in recent years thanks to a federal fund that supports the creation of new protected and conserved areas.
"Until the Canada Nature Fund was launched in 2018, our access to federal government funding was virtually non-existent," said Megan Harris, executive director of the trust.
"While the province has provided in-kind support, there has been no financial support for our land securement program from them to this point."
In an email, the province said it provides "$42,000 annually and land acquisition is part of the reason."
She agrees that P.E.I. has unique challenges when it comes to meeting land protection targets — and that the process will take time.
Making up a shortfall cannot be achieved overnight through the protection of a few large blocks of land because they don't exist in our fragmented landscape. - Megan Harris, Island Nature Trust
"Making up a shortfall cannot be achieved overnight through the protection of a few large blocks of land because they don't exist in our fragmented landscape," said Harris.
She said Island Nature Trust is working hard to grow its protected areas network — and has increased its own capacity to secure and protect land in the last two years. But enhanced provincial support is vital to someday reaching the goal.
"To contribute more toward the 7% target, we must further grow our capacity, with the support of our regional and provincial partners, including the Province of PEI," said Harris.
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