In 1616, just four years after the Island's permanent settlement, a proclamation to prevent "the spoile and havoc" of the cahow by early colonists was issued. In 1620 another decree forbade the "waste and abuse ... of all kinds of Tortoyses." The endemic Bermuda cedar, so very plentiful there were once as many as 500 trees per acre in areas where it flourished, also required protection because of chronic overuse. In 1627, authorities enacted legislation to restrict the export of cedar for shipbuilding. And from 1693 to 1878, the Bermuda legislature passed a total of 16 acts to protect the slow-growing cedar by limiting its use.

Of course, the need for such legislation underscores the fact that almost from the very beginning there have also been those among us who have not always been the most mindful guardians of our natural legacy and natural resources.

While efforts to save the cahow almost proved to be a case of too little, too late, those early steps taken to prevent indiscriminate cedar-felling and the depletion of our sea turtle stock both had crucial long-term consequences for Bermuda's environment. Although the early settlers would only have had a rudimentary grasp of the scientific principles involved, widespread deforestation in the 17th century would have caused perhaps irreversible damage to the Island. The impact would have made itself felt in terms of everything from biodiversity to soil erosion. Hence the urgent need to reforest Bermuda with quick-growing casuarinas after the 1940s blight killed fully 90 percent of the Island's cedars. And the proper husbanding and nurturing of our sea turtles almost certainly precluded damage to the delicate ecology of our protective coral reefs, among the most diverse and highly interconnected community of organisms in the world.

The occasional need for urgent remedial action in the form of conservation legislation continues up to the present day. In 1990, for instance, Government introduced a comprehensive ban on fish pots, used by Bermuda's commercial fishermen for more than a century and long considered an essential and non-negotiable tool of their trade. Despite widespread opposition from fishermen and their political allies, Government justified its actions on pressing ecological grounds. Overfishing had led to a pending collapse in the Island's fish stock and there was real potential for widespread degradation of the reef ecosystem. To have not taken such necessary and consequential action to protect our reefs would have been tantamount to signing our own death warrant.

For stewardship of Bermuda's natural environments is not just about what we do today, it's also about how we leave things for tomorrow. There is an overriding need for the careful long-term management of our ecosystems because without such safeguards fragile Bermuda would face any number of existential threats to its very survival. But last week's amendments to the 2003 Protected Species Act do not appear to have been considered particularly carefully by legislators. Nor was much thought seemingly given to the possible long-term consequences.

Most of the provisions approved by the House of Assembly on Friday are eminently commonsensical, aimed at better harmonising the needs of property owners with Bermuda's environmental needs. However, the amendments also leave sole responsibility for development decisions allowing for "destruction of protected species" and "destruction of critical habitats" to the discretionary power of the Environment Minister.

Technically, of course, this means the Minister of the day — on a political whim — could greenlight a Grand Atlantic-style condo development for Nonsuch Island or sign off on new channels to be blasted haphazardly through the reefs to better accommodate mega cruise ships.

Government has effectively unchecked and unbalanced existing procedures and replaced due process with an arbitrary decision-making system. Given the One Bermuda Party was elected to the office, in part, on a pledge to restore accountability and transparency to the Island's public affairs, Government may well want to revisit these amendments before they reach the Senate. The potential for abuse is very real. So is the potential for inflicting irreparable damage on this "most prodigious and enchanted place."

Original Article

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