October 8, 2007

Harper's budget cuts exasperate, infuriate environmental scientists

EDMONTON -- Environment Canada scientists are virtually at war with the federal department over funding shortfalls for conservation and climate change initiatives.

The situation has become so intense that Environment Canada has put out a contract worth up to $100,000 to get an outside agency to help ease tensions and get employees used to the idea of coming changes.

Battle lines began to be drawn this summer when the Conservative government froze the budget of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), the 60-year-old institution that is responsible for migratory birds, national bird and wildlife sanctuaries, endangered species and the famous Hinterland's Who's Who television commercials and web sites.

Budgets were also slashed for the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Network, the Migratory Bird Program and the National Wildlife Areas before Environment Minister John Baird rescinded those cuts last week.

Baird declined to be interviewed about the troubles at Environment Canada.

But in a statement, Garry Keller, his director of communications, blamed the former Liberal government for the freeze and the cuts. Keller said a $17.1-million budget cut agreed to by Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, when Dion was environment minister, is responsible.

He said the Tory government has increased Environment Canada's main budget by $38 million. Keller said there will be no layoffs, which was never an issue, but did not say if a budget freeze were still part of the plan.

He added that Baird has instructed his department to be "financially flexible" so that critical programs are maintained.

More than a dozen scientists and managers interviewed by The Edmonton Journal over the past week aren't optimistic anything is going to get better.

The scientists said CWS has been so cash-starved for so long that there are virtually no recovery programs in place for the majority of plant and wildlife species that are considered to be at risk.

The problems, they said, have been made known to the government through various channels and audits. Last year, for example, an audit done for the government showed that the former Liberal government diverted funds away from the endangered species program.

The audit by Stratos, a management consulting firm, noted that Environment Canada lagged far behind Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans in taking action on the endangered species for which they are responsible.

Seven weeks ago, the Environment Law Centre of Alberta sent Baird a letter saying that, to date, critical habitat for the recovery of species at risk has been identified for only three of the 235 plants and animals that should have recovery plans in place.

The freeze, however, isn't the only thing that has the scientists at CWS hopping mad. The budget issues have also escalated into what one senior research scientist described as a "bizarre round of spending initiatives" that is being used to justify the so-called re-organization of CWS and changing its name to the Conservation and Biodiversity Protection Directorate.

Earlier this year, Ipsos-Reid was hired to give the government insight into what the scientists said was a senseless re-organization of the service under a new name.

Regional Environment Canada managers interviewed by Ipsos-Reid saw no need for it, scientists and other employees saw it as an excuse for cutting jobs and conservation programs and creating another layer in what they called an already top-loaded bureaucracy.

The report, however, has apparently not changed the minds of the senior officials within the department who have put out another contract, one that calls for "organizational intervention" for the CWS's entire work force.

The focus this time is on "team building, change management, employee engagement, and values and ethics policies and legislation."

The value of the contract is estimated to be between $50,000 and $100,000.

Keller defended the contract, saying it was for "ethics training, something that Canadians said was very important after years of Liberal mismanagement." Scientists and a number of managers see it as a waste of money that could be used for more meaningful conservation programs.

CWS is not the only unhappy organization within Environment Canada.

At the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC), many of the roughly 300 researchers, scientists and forecasters also say they are angry, depressed and frustrated by budget constraints that stop them from providing the services Canadians are paying for. MSC operates on an annual budget of about $200 million, which most scientists think is not nearly enough to address the climate change and air quality challenges that Canada faces.

MSC has never recovered from the years 1994 through to 1998, when government cutbacks shrank funding by 30 per cent. A little over two years ago, many of MSC's top scientists joined university colleagues in making a detailed public statement warning the government that the research essential to climate change and smog-reducing initiatives was near a state of collapse.

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