Waterway Access Drying Up?

Waterway Access Drying Up?

Budget amendments threaten hunting rights.

We loaded gear into the canoe and set out at first light. We had hunted the area every year for decades. As we paddled around a familiar curve, we found ourselves against a new galvanized wire fence with "no trespassing" signs. The fence dropped into the creek bottom and stretched out on each side -- clearly designed to keep people out.

Pending amendments to the Navigable Waters Protection Act not only threaten waterfowlers' traditional hunting rights, but also decrease protection of Canada's wetlands.

In fact, the practice of placing barriers to public access on navigable waterways is already in effect in certain areas. The practice will be greatly encouraged and accelerated should the amendments to NWPA proceed. The amended act could provide a legal basis for private interests to restrict access.

Few disappointments compare with the pure shock of being denied access to a traditional duck hunting area. If pending amendments to the federal Navigable Waters Protection Act pass, waterfowl hunters might feel the pain this season. At the beginning of March, the Budget Implementation Act had moved into the Senate. It was expected to quickly pass back into the House of Commons and become law. The BIA is Canada's economic stimulus plan to counter the current recession. However, amendments to the NWPA embedded within this piece of economic recovery legislation could remove historical access rights of hunters, anglers, trappers, canoeists and other users of formerly declared public waterways.

The federal government is streamlining the NWPA and other environmental acts to speed up the approval process for development projects on creeks, wetlands and in riparian zones of rivers, streams and other waterways. Admittedly, the current system of approval for works or projects on waterways is onerous and clogged with red tape. No one wants red tape to tie up development and infrastructure where the projects are needed and pose no threat to public access and the environment. But without more careful review and public consultation, the government risks losing valuable wetlands, as well as throwing out access rights of millions of Canadian outdoor enthusiasts.

At present, Canadians have a right of access to any navigable waters. The right varies across provinces, and some restrictions apply. But basically, if you can float a canoe or move watercraft between public access points, or if there is a historical pattern of use such as fishing, hunting or recreation, the waterway is considered navigable.

The federal government wants to accelerate development on and along waterways by creating classes of waterways, as well as classes of works such as dams, bridges and other structures that can be exempt from approval under NWPA. The Minister of Transport and/or the Federal Cabinet will retain the right under an amended NWPA to exempt certain waterways from NWPA protections, to bypass environmental assessments and to accelerate public consultation through a severely shortened public review process.

Public navigation rights under an amended NWPA might only apply to waterways having more than one meter of depth under a boat during three consecutive months. This definition will eliminate the public right of access to most of creeks and shallow marshes used by duck hunters. Once the act is passed, adjacent landowners and developers can challenge the rights of public access by placing legal barriers across the waterways.

Unfortunately, loss of access is not the only problem under an amended NWPA. It could also decrease protection for creeks, riparian zones, marshes and other wetlands. When a developer wants to build a dam, bridge or other structure across a navigable waterway, or fill in a wetland to build a housing project, the permit application might trigger an environmental assessment. But the environmental review process might be eliminated if the waterway is exempt from NWPA protection.

An amended NWPA affords less accountability for potential impacts on sensitive environmental areas. Changes to the act would likely lead to a proliferation of dams and other barriers along creeks, streams and small rivers, which would have negative impacts on fish and other wildlife. Waterway crossings could use culverts, as opposed to more expensive bridges that allow navigation. Projects currently reviewed by civil servants might no longer require a review. Similarly, public notification and consultation requirements will be reduced.

Changes to the NWPA, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and some aspects of the Federal Fisheries Act are overdue. These acts can interfere with fish habitat enhancement projects as much as they stand in the path of a developer. Farmers and others have found the regulations related to these acts onerous, and often, the process adds little or no real protection for the environment or fish and wildlife. That said, the process of changing the current and historical legal framework protecting public access to waterways, as well as fish, wildlife and the environment in and along these waterways, should not be embedded in a budget bill aimed at rejuvenating the economy.

Amendments to NWPA should be separated from the BIA. The current recession places a priority on stimulating the economy, but that should not occur at the expense of public access rights to waterways, or pose a threat to fish, wildlife and the environment. The rush to move the bill through parliament and the senate is being supported by the conservative government, but also by the liberals, who have made it clear they will not oppose the BIA and the proposed amendments to NWPA. No one wants to be seen to be standing in the way of economic growth in difficult times.

More than 20 years ago, the concept that environment and the economy were inextricably linked was adopted by Canada and most developed nations. The concept decreed the economy should flourish, but not at the expense of the environment. Amendments to NWPA suggest Canadians need to choose between public access, fish and wildlife habitat and environmental conservation or economic recovery. Legislators should also take into account the strong public interest in access to waterways, which is sure to haunt the conservatives long after economic recovery occurs.

Meanwhile, all parties in the debate seem to have lost sight of the fact we have landed in this place because we did not sort out the problems caused by federal environmental legislation and unnecessary delays for approvals when the economy was in better shape. Long Gun Registry Targeted

Saskatchewan Member of Parliament Garry Breitkreuz introduced a Private Member's Bill (C-301) on Feb. 9 that would eliminate the useless and hated Long Gun Registry."The Registry is a political pacifier created to give the impression that Canada would be safer for it, but nothing could be further from the trut

h," he said.

The Registry was budgeted to cost $2 million, but it rapidly spiraled to $2 billion a decade later, without saving a single life.

According to Rob Olson, Delta Waterfowl president, elimination of the Registry will have a positive impact on duck hunters and the future of waterfowling. "Delta Waterfowl manages hunting recruitment and youth hunting programs across Canada, and we have said since its passage that the Long Gun Registry serves only to impede the lawful use of firearms by hunters, while doing little to address real crime issues," he said.

The Breitkreuz Bill has the support of the federal conservative government, and it is anticipated a number of members of parliament from rural areas will support the bill.

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