When it comes to protecting the environment in British Columbia, the most powerful tool available may soon be your smartphone.
The BC Wildlife Federation is hoping a new app it developed with researchers at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan will be used by tens of thousands of people to record and report environmental abuses across the province.
The app, released by the BCWF Monday, comes after years of budget cuts at both the provincial and federal levels that left environmental agencies with reduced enforcement capabilities.
A study last year by the Society of British Columbia Conservation Officers showed a 32-per-cent reduction in the number of field officers since 2001, while the number of provincial park rangers has dropped from 27 to 7. Federally, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada reports that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has cut 30 per cent of its species-at-risk staff since 2010, while Environment Canada cut 21 per cent of its staff in the same period.
"Obviously we talk about how there are not enough park rangers, not enough conservation officers. This approach adds eyes and ears, but it also empowers all those people who feel the way the system is set up now is not supporting responsible use of natural resources," said Jesse Zeman, a spokesman for the BCWF, which has about 50,000 members.
"I guess the big picture is that what we are trying to do is have people take ownership of the resource. We want people to feel like they own it, because they do," he said.
"It's definitely not just a BCWF app. The objective is [to mobilize] all these people who hunt, fish, camp, bike – also all the professionals, the foresters, hydrologists, biologists. Anybody who is using the B.C. back country should have this app on their phone in case they see something they think is not consistent with social norms."
Mr. Zeman said people with the app can report any incident that concerns them – from suspected wildlife poaching to cattle grazing in protected areas, pollution incidents or illegal gates that restrict access to public land.
"The objective here is to drive social change," he said. "We're doing that in two ways. First of all, we have a whole bunch of people who enjoy the environment who are out there every day. And we are empowering them to be able to give these reports. The flip side of that is there is a social-justice component, where the people who are committing these infractions should recognize over time that their behaviour is socially unacceptable – and that there are a few hundred thousand eyes out there watching them."
The BCWF Conservation App allows users to report incidents to a secure server in the UBC – Okanagan Spatial Information for Community Engagement (SpICE) lab. The data is logged onto a map of the province using a smartphone's GPS technology and is streamed to the appropriate government enforcement agency.
"What we are interested in is how we can make maps become transformative agents of change," said Jon Corbett, an associate professor at UBC – Okanagan and director of the SpICE lab.
"All of these violations are occurring throughout the wilderness in British Columbia. BCWF has a membership of 53,000 people. They are out there in the field continuously. Why can't we use them as a mechanism to crowdsource – to share information about violations they see in the field? That was the problem we started with," he said. "So we developed an iPhone app – a really straightforward four-button tool."
People who witness anything damaging the environment can take a quick picture, fill in a few details and upload the data to the lab, which pinpoints it on a map and alerts authorities.
Mr. Zeman said there is an option for officials to delay posting data on the public map if they need time to investigate an alleged offence. Steps will also be taken to protect privacy.
"In terms of what shows up on the public website, we will be greying out faces and licence plates for now," Mr. Zeman said.
Doug Forsdick, B.C.'s Chief Conservation Officer, said the app could play an important role in enforcement.
"We welcome more eyes and ears across the province to help guard against illegal activities that can harm our ecosystems and beautiful natural spaces," he said in a statement.
The app can be downloaded from iTunes or from the BCWF website.