There was no fanfare, not even a press release.
But three months ago, Premier Tim Houston’s government quietly reversed a move made in 2016 by former Premier Stephen McNeil’s government that brought all the province’s conservation, inspection, enforcement, and compliance officers under one roof.
According to Erin Lynch, spokesperson for Natural Resources and Renewables (DNRR), on April 1 this year Houston’s government shuffled conservation officers, as well as other “inspection, enforcement and compliance officers from several departments” back to DNRR from Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change, where the government of former Premier Stephen McNeil had put them in order to “bring enforcement under one department.”
At the time of the move in 2016, then-Environment Minister Margaret Miller explained that Nova Scotia Environment enforced “the Acts of other departments and more than 100 regulations as they relate to water, designed protection areas, and industry regulations.”
Miller said the purpose of moving 100 people to her department from four other government departments was to separate “the sector development roles from the province’s regulatory role,” and “support improved services to Nova Scotia.”
But that was then.
Asked for the rationale behind the latest move for the conservation officers, Lynch replied:
Conservation officers already work closely with Natural Resources and Renewables staff and, in many cases, share the same office space. This change in reporting reflects the close relationship conservation officers have with the broader Natural Resources and Renewables team. They will continue to do the same important work in the offices where they are currently located.
Nova Scotia’s conservation officers are certainly a mobile and flexible group. In 2020 when the government of Nova Scotia decided to monitor — and sometimes close — the border with New Brunswick because of COVID-19, conservation officers found themselves stationed at the border, monitoring traffic coming into the province, even if Stephen McNeil’s government denied them the authority to take measures to protect anyone.
When the border was completely re-opened for regular traffic, the conservation officers went back to their conservation beats.
Nova Scotia currently has 54 conservation officers, including three managers at district offices across the province, Lynch said.
She said the role of conservation officers is to safeguard “provincial parks and protected areas and the sustainable use of Nova Scotia’s natural resources.”
“They investigate activities such as illegal harvesting and hunting, and they patrol these areas to ensure public recreational activities are undertaken safely and responsibly,” Lynch said. “These officers will continue the same important work in the offices where they are currently located.”
They perform proactive and reactive patrols, (foot, vehicle, including off highway vehicle and vessel) investigations, aquaculture and fish buyer inspections. The most common occurrences are off highway vehicles infractions, Wildlife Act infractions, and infractions related to burning restrictions during our provincial fire season.
The Examiner asked Lynch if there was any conflict of interest when the department that promotes forestry and mining and other resource-based industries is also responsible for conservation and enforcement of regulations that govern conservation of those resources and environmental protection.
Bringing the work of conservation officers back to Natural Resources and Renewables reflects how their important work aligns with the department’s mandate to preserve our natural resources and allow Nova Scotians to enjoy the outdoors safely. This move strengthens our work to manage natural resources, protect forests and wildlife, and contribute to a sustainable future for Nova Scotia. Conservation officers already work closely with this department’s staff and, in many cases, share the same office space, so this move makes sense.
Conservation officers use their training and judgement to determine which compliance is best suited to the situation. Their options include education, issuing verbal or written warnings, issuing summary offense tickets, laying charges and seizing equipment of persons they find committing offences.
And, Lynch added, “Conservation officers continue to work closely with staff at Environment and Climate Change and continue to play a critical role in protecting our wilderness areas and nature reserves.”
Conflict of interest?
Not everyone sees the move as positive.
According to one person who asked for anonymity for professional reasons, when the conservation officers and others in charge of enforcing provincial regulations were moved to Nova Scotia Environment in 2016, it was intended to reduce conflict of interest.
The person noted that the move back to DNRR was done without any disclosure, and that DNRR recently updated its summary offence tickets regulations. Conservation officers are now allowed to issue tickets on site, with fines ranging from $812.50 to $1,157.50 for offences under the 2002 Wildlife Habitat and Watercourses Protection Regulations.
According to the same person, this new set of summary offence tickets creates a situation where a predetermined fine could just become the cost of doing business.
“If you know that breaking the rule gets you $4,000 in wood and a $1,000 on-site fine, most companies will cut that wood every time,” the person said.
‘Pro-industry’ regulations need to be ‘re-written’
Wildlife biologist and president of Nature Nova Scotia Bob Bancroft has a lot of sympathy and respect for Nova Scotia’s conservation officers, and was himself one back in the 1970s.
He does see a conflict of interest when those responsible for enforcing environmental and wildlife regulations are working out of the same department that in his view, is overly influenced by industrial forestry interests that harm nature. But Bancroft believes the real problem is the regulations that conservation officers are expected to enforce.
In a telephone interview, Bancroft pointed to the example of forest and wildlife guidelines and regulations that stipulate a 20-metre green belt along a waterway must be left for moose. He says this is “ridiculous,” because a moose would need at least 50 or 60 metres of forest to hide from view and feel safe.
“Conservation officers want to protect nature,” said Bancroft. “By the very definition, they are trying to conserve wildlife and nature and forests by enforcing the laws.”
But those laws are “pro-industry,” said Bancroft. He would like to see the province’s environmental regulations, as well as wildlife and forestry regulations, “all lumped together and rewritten.”
Bancroft believes the situation would improve if wildlife protection were removed from DNRR. Natural Resources and Renewables would still be responsible for forestry operations, he said, but those would be overseen by Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change.
Bancroft would also like to see NSECC’s budget, which now represents a tiny part of the provincial budget, dramatically increased.
No matter which government department they’re in, Bancroft believes conservation officers are determined to do their jobs well and protect the province’s natural resources.
However, he sees a role for the public in helping them do so.
“We need to insist that the Department [of Natural Resources and Renewables] starts acting in the public interest and not just in the interest of the industrial forestry and mining sector,” Bancroft told the Examiner.
“Then environmental protection becomes a reality,” Bancroft said. “And that is what conservation officers want.”