Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


Science can help Judge Conservation

December 1, 2003

Debate on the protection of ecosystems comes back to a fundamental question: How much is enough? Thankfully, the science of conservation biology can help direct us toward finding a responsible answer to this question, but science alone cannot make the decisions for us.

With those thoughts in mind, the recent conference at the University of British Columbia on Conservation Area Designs provided a rare opportunity for leading scientists from around the world to discuss the role science can play in helping public and private decision-makers.

For three days, these experts tackled issues pertaining to uncertainty, sufficiency and efficiency in the pursuit of creating conservation solutions for the province — solutions that would also leave room for healthy and sustainable economies.

The B.C. Region of the Nature Conservancy of Canada co-sponsored this event as part of its substantial commitment to, and investment in, the science and application of conservation biology.

Also, as part of that commitment, we view the work under way at Land and Resource Management Planning tables on the coast as an unparalleled opportunity to apply science in the service of facilitating open and honest dialogue around land-use issues. As part of an integrated effort to bring information and analysis to stakeholders in the Central Coast, North Coast and Haida Gwaii, the conservancy joined the Coastal Information Team, an independent body of scientists brought together to assess ecological, cultural and economic values on the land.

By providing both information and the necessary tools to make sense of that information, science is a critical bridge between raw stakeholder interest and stakeholder consensus. Science can help us understand the societal and ecological risks inherent in our decisions, providing a transparent means for measuring the consequences of our choices around land use. Science can also help us find and test important thresholds beyond which the risks have irreversible outcomes. It is these thresholds that lie at the heart of the current debate around “how much is enough?” in regards to species and ecosystem protection in coastal B.C.

While the current science of conservation biology suggests that between 30 and 70 per cent of the landbase needs to be protected in order to maintain the long-term viability of coastal species and ecosystems, it doesn’t yet tell us where precisely along that spectrum the “final” answer lies. This uncertainty raises another important point concerning the role of science in decision-making — namely, that science alone cannot make the decisions for us, and decisions about acceptable ecological risk must be held in balance with the economic and societal uncertainties faced by human communities.

The coastal temperate rainforest of B.C. is both a wonder and a resource of incomparable regional and global value. The challenge of managing the coastal ecosystem effectively will demand an unprecedented commitment of resources and trust among the people of B.C. The consequence of failure demands nothing less. The creation of an independent scientific body such as the Coast Information Team, which has been at work on the B.C. coast for the last two years, is in itself a testament to the integrity and good faith of the provincial government, environmental groups, First Nations, and industry. The information team holds the potential to dramatically advance the understanding of how ecosystem health and human well-being are intertwined and interdependent in British Columbia.

As deadlines for decisions on coastal land-use loom, these same parties must continue to invest in that good faith. Further, they must fully consider the scientific analyses — cultural, economic as well as ecological — and give stakeholders the chance to understand the results so they can make decisions that benefit not only those interests at the table, but all British Columbians.

- Chuck Rumsey is director of conservation programs for the B.C. region of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which has worked quietly with partners to protect more than 1.8 million acres of Canada’s natural heritage over the past 40 years.