Historic meeting seeks common ground on conservation
It was a fitting cap to late May’s inaugural National Fish and Wildlife Conservation Congress in Ottawa. Not only did Prime Minister Stephen Harper address the gathering of some 400 conservation industry insiders, he also announced the creation of a national hunting and angling advisory panel.
Given the challenges Canada faces in balancing economic growth with sustainable development, the announcement was taken as a positive sign Ottawa is serious about ensuring national conservation issues are addressed—complete with seeking reasoned advice from beyond the government bureaucracy.
It was also a validation of the convention itself, the culmination of more than three years of planning by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), with support from government ministries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions and private corporations. Not that Ottawa’s stamp of approval was the main objective of the four-day gathering.
Conceived by renowned conservationist Shane Mahoney and OFAH’s manager of government affairs and policy, Greg Farrant, the congress had several goals, key among them getting the breadth of the conservation community working together to address issues of mutual concern.
The format was effective, with morning plenary sessions featuring keynote speakers, followed by afternoon breakout sessions. Typically there were three distinct afternoon sessions running concurrently, each comprising a series of presentations following a central theme. Participants could hop from room to room, taking in those sessions with personal or professional appeal.
Representing jurisdictions from across North America, the presenters ranged from politicians and scientists to conservation NGO managers and master’s students, speaking on everything from the mountain pine beetle, polar bears and Asian carp to chronic wasting disease, remote sensing and the North American wildlife management model. It was a lot to bite off, and while it was certainly interesting, only time will tell if such diversity will actually drive the conservation community toward more collaborative efforts.
The second-last session of the congress included five separate workshops, with each registered participant assigned to a specific one. I participated in “Strengthening and Expanding Support, Interest and Participation in Fish and Wildlife Conservation.” Complete with a moderator and an expert panel of four, our group was very vocal and enthusiastic in addressing a range of related topics, including engaging youth, introducing new Canadians to conservation, building government support and working more effectively with the media. If the other workshops were anywhere near as productive as ours, they would have more than met their objectives.
Farrant, who served as congress chair, was pleased with the turnout of 410 registrants, although the goal was 600 to 700. It was clear through discussions with other attendees (and later, with those who did not attend) that not all relevant institutions had fully bought into the conference concept. That’s not unusual with a first-off event such as this, and undoubtedly future congresses will attract a much longer list of participants.
A main theme throughout the conference was the managed consumptive use of resources through fishing and hunting, so it was interesting that some of the attendees came from groups with a more environmental or protectionist bent, such as the Sierra Club, Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice. The participation of these organizations should not be undervalued—when was the last time such a diverse group got together to explore conservation issues and devise solutions?
As I sat through the many sessions, it became increasingly clear that the scope of the conference was indeed vast, and any tangible benefits will only reveal themselves down the road. When the entire conservation community is singing Kumbaya together, it’s easy to forget that away from the room there’s much competition between the various organizations. Many vie for ideas, for supporters, for revenue and for media attention, and often their very existence depends on any competitive edge they can get.
While public interest in conservation appears to be growing in Canada, these various institutions, particularly NGOs, would like to see it grow much faster to allow them to more effectively deliver their respective missions. The pie may be slowly getting larger, but the appetite among many of the attending organizations is clearly for a bigger and bigger piece.
Having said all that, it was abundantly clear the participants made an effort to leave personal agendas at the door and come together as a conservation community to address the big picture. I caught up with Farrant a few weeks after the conference, and the way he sees it, such unity is crucial. “As Canadians we need to understand who we want to be and where we want to go as a nation, and decide what place conservation must have in that vision,” he says. “There are significant issues impinging on all of us, and we must use our collective expertise, knowledge and resources to move forward.”
And by all accounts, Farrant observes, the four-day symposium succeeded in providing a good snapshot of the continent-wide state of fish and wildlife conservation. “We must now guard against the trap of navel-gazing,” he adds. “The congress needs to be a springboard to increased big-picture thinking and actions in the future.”
This sums up what many attendees also believe. There’s a real risk of falling back into the trap of blinkered thinking once everyone has returned home. But I’m an optimist. I had the chance to watch first-hand as conservation leaders from all constituencies exchanged ideas in a welcoming, open venue. I have no doubt the personal relationships that were built over the course of the conference will alone ensure stronger collaboration moving forward.
The key will be for each of the players to focus on the values they share, and to set aside those on which they differ. The threats facing our fisheries and wildlife are simply too great for professional conservation leaders to ignore the benefits of finding more effective ways to work together to tackle the challenges. Clearly, there’s safety in numbers, and OFAH and the many other organizations and individuals who played a role in planning and hosting this congress are to be congratulated for their efforts and vision.
I asked Farrant about the prospects of building on the success of this year’s congress. He envisions a similar gathering in Canada every two or three years, with sometime in 2015 being the next logical target date. Who will take on the role of host and key organizer, however, remains to be seen. Hopefully, the right people will again step up. Thanks to the inaugural National Fish and Wildlife Conservation Congress, after all, a giant leap forward for conservation has already been taken.