Inactive advisory council legislated to protect wilderness reserves
If a request to build a mineral exploration access road near a nature park and wilderness reserve had been made to the Department of Environment and Conservation a few years ago, an advisory council tasked to advise the government on the management of such areas would have likely offered some thoughts.
However, a former member of the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council (WERAC) says that’s not the case today since the province has failed to appoint new members or reappoint old ones in recent years.
“I think the interesting thing to realize about WERAC is the PC government — and I think it started with (former premier) Danny Williams — they just let this thing actually disappear,” said Bill Montevecchi, a research professor at Memorial University, best known for his work studying seabirds.
WERAC was created in 1980 under the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act. The 11-member committee traditionally advises the government on the creation and management of wildlife and ecological reserves. Cabinet appoints committee members to three-year terms.
On the Department of Environment and Conservation website, the government confirms there is no one currently appointed to the committee.
The website notice goes on to say “efforts are underway to renew the council membership,” and advises interested candidates to contact WERAC’s executive secretary.
Montevecchi, who spent 15 years on WERAC from 1997 to 2012, says the committee would definitively have offered advice to government on a proposed mineral exploration access road that would come within 500 metres of Salmonier Nature Park. The final 800 metres of the road would also stretch into an area where Crown Lands prohibits development.
Road for exploration
The Telegram reported Monday on the access road and the concerns of cabin owners in the area. Eagleridge International Ltd. wants to build the 11-kilometre road to access land where the company has exploration rights.
“When you have a reserve, it’s really important to keep and least be aware of the buffers and the integrity of these things,” Montevecchi said. “They don’t exist in isolation.”
He questions an assertion made in the environmental preview report that a helicopter could not be used to access the area for exploration, a practice that’s common across Newfoundland and Labrador. Montevecchi contends that whether or not culverts are used with respect to waterways, waterflow and the integrity of bogs will be disrupted if a road is built.
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In the report, the proponent argues it’s risky to use helicopters to carry heavy equipment to remote areas. It cites three accidents in the last 12 years involving helicopters long-lining heavy loads that resulted in two pilot deaths and another left paralyzed.
When Montevecchi was involved with WERAC, its membership came from varied backgrounds. Fish harvesters, retired wildlife wardens and representatives of different development associations were among those contributing to the committee’s work.
According to Montevecchi, WERAC’s contact with the environment minister became extremely limited over the years. Based on his own memory, the last one to meet with the committee was current St. John’s South Liberal MHA Tom Osborne. Osborne, while still a PC member, was the minister of environment from 2003 to 2006.
“It’s really reflective, I think, of particularly this PC government’s perspective of the unimportance of the environment and the lack of protection that they give it,” said Montevecchi. “They take their portfolios as being so insignificant in the scheme of things that they simply don’t fulfil the mandates of the province.”
Montevecchi said departmental staff were always helpful to WERAC members and were genuinely interested in protecting wilderness reserves.
In a statement released to The Telegram early Tuesday evening, a department spokeswoman said government is still committed to protecting the province's wilderness and ecological reserves and that it hopes to reappoint members to WERAC in the near future.
"Advice on protected and natural areas is provided by officials in our Parks and Natural Areas Division," the spokeswoman added in the emailed statement. "Proposed developments which may impact on the environment are assessed through the environmental assessment processes regulated by the Environmental Protection Act, which allows for public input and input from numerous provincial government department and agencies."