VANCOUVER - The British Columbia government's record on protecting the province's rich biodiversity is "troubling," the B.C. auditor general said Thursday.
The provincial government not only is failing to measure its conservation progress, but doesn't appear to have a clear understanding of what biodiversity is, John Doyle said in his latest report.
"Biodiversity is so important. It's like a canary-in-the-mine situation," Doyle said. "Declining biodiversity is like a litmus test, a warning sign, that tells you about an environment under stress."
B.C. is the most biologically diverse province in Canada and one of the most diverse regions of the world, he said.
"Once lost it's almost impossible to get back and, therefore, you need to maintain it and protect it."
The audit found that government does not know whether the actions it has taken have actually resulted in conservation, and that government is not adequately measuring or reporting its progress.
Recent assessments have shown that many species and ecosystems are in decline, the report said.
Despite decades of commitments, Doyle found the government has not fully implemented promised policies and tools. There are gaps in legislation and a lack of information.
The same issues exist today as existed when the last audit was conducted 20 years ago, he said, adding that habitat protection represents up to 90 per cent of the problem.
The report made six recommendations, including a timeline for conservation actions and clear goals.
The provincial government should make a long-term commitment to track biodiversity in B.C., and use it to make informed decisions, the report said.
It also urged a review of legislation to address inconsistencies, and periodic public reporting of the actions taken.
Environment Minister Terry Lake said he accepts the recommendations, and the government has committed to streamlining data collection and reviewing legislation. It will also implement a more comprehensive program for natural resource monitoring by 2014.
Balancing conservation and economic growth is a challenge for B.C. and all governments, Lake said.
"A province like British Columbia owes the great amount of its wealth to the natural landscape —whether it's natural gas, forestry, mining, or clean energy," Lake said.
"It is a balance between preserving the natural part of our land base and preserving and conserving biodiversity, and at the same time providing the economic benefits that the land provides. That is a balance."
The government is in the midst of a shift to a co-ordinated, cross-ministry approach that will address many of the issues, Lake said.
Currently, 37 per cent of B.C.'s land base is covered by one or more conservation designations, Lake said — a figure conservation groups call misleading.
West Coast Environmental Law issued its own report Thursday on the province's land and resource management, giving a failing grade.
While there are many forms of land-use designations that have been implemented over the years, only about 15 per cent of the land base is protected from most types of resource development, said West Coast Law.
"Already B.C. communities are grappling with water shortages, forest fires and the mountain pine beetle epidemic, underlining the need to evolve the way we manage our environment to take climate change into account as part of an integrated, strategic approach to managing cumulative effects," said the report.
Rob Fleming, the environment critic for the Opposition NDP, said there is no political will within the Liberal government to address conservation and climate change.
"The national capital of B.C. is literally worth trillions of dollars to future generations," Fleming said.
British Columbians, including industry, want stability and a government that is a responsible steward of the environment, he said.