The provincial Environment Department has been violating its own legislation ever since it effectively shut down the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council (WERAC) more than one year ago.
The council was established by the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act in 1980 to help government discover which “representative or unique ecosystems, species or natural phenomena” in Newfoundland and Labrador needed protecting.
In its lifetime, the council helped preserve 18 such areas, including Funk Island, Mistaken Point, the Gannet Islands and Cape St. Mary’s. The council is supposed to gather four times a year to give government advice based on “scientific research and public input.”
“Together, WERAC and the (Parks) Division work to ensure that all public and private interests are fairly heard and considered when reserves are being planned and established,” the official government web page explains. “Public meetings are called to acquire input when reserves are proposed;
WERAC members are in attendance.”
A former council member says they were still working on 21 proposals, most of which had been nominated by various citizens or groups, when they were ordered never to meet again.
The act says the council members themselves (who were not paid for their services — only reimbursed their expenses) are to be experienced professionals from various parts of the province. There are supposed to be 11 members in total. The government is supposed to appoint them for three-year terms and they can be reappointed as many times as the government desires.
According to the WERAC web page, which was updated in August 2012, “There are currently no vacancies on the council.” The webpage names all members, providing short biographies for each.
The people listed are biologists, oceanographers, hunters, fishermen, newspaper editors, forestry experts, a retired wildlife enforcement officer and others.
That’s who the official government web page says is on the council, but the page is wrong. In actual fact, none of the 11 positions are currently filled. They are all vacant.
According to two former members, when the latest three-year terms began expiring more than two years ago, the government simply stopped reappointing the old members or appointing any new ones.
“For years (the government) have not been appointing people as they’ve left the committee and now there’s no one on the committee,” says one former member, MUN biologist Bill Montevecchi. “They’re breaking the law when they do that.”
Another former longtime member agrees. Laura Jackson of
Flatrock calls the government’s policy towards WERAC “malignant neglect.”
Jackson, head of the province’s Protected Areas Association, says when the gradually shrinking council noticed it was not receiving reinforcements, the remaining members tried but failed to get any explanation out of the Department of Environment and Conservation.
“The minister got sick of delegations asking when new appointments were going to be made,” she says, adding that many of the members continued meeting even after their terms expired, since they still had a considerable amount of work to do; but the government told them to stop.
“We would continue to get together and make recommendations because this council has to exist by the terms of the Act … (but) they said, you’re not allowed to meet anymore.”
Montevecchi calls the government’s steadfast refusal to fill the positions “a corruption of process.” He says that while the staff in the Department of Environment are terrific to work with, those staff are hamstrung by a minister who is only “an apologist for the devastation of the department.”
Montevecchi says that while his fellow council members were so dedicated to their task that they were willing to work for nothing, the government that shut the council down shows “no appreciation and no commitment to the environment. They want to develop first and then see what’s left over … maybe WERAC was a thorn in the side of development.”
Both former members say the government must reconstitute WERAC, since the law requires it, but Montevecchi predicts he won’t be given his seat back.
“I’ll never be reappointed,” he says, “because I’ve been public about what I think about it.”
Several calls made to the department about the issue resulted in friendly conversations with a couple of staff, but no usable information.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.