Bike and Pedestrian Trail Eclipses Ecological Integrity in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

If you haven’t been to the Long Beach Unit of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve lately, this is what you’ll be greeted with.

This 5m wide slash through the forest and running parallel to Highway 4 is the beginning of construction of a bike and pedestrian trail. When completed, it will become a part of the regional trail system being developed by the communities of Tofino and Ucluelet.

Initially, it was to be completed by the spring of this year (2018) at an estimated cost of $17.7million. But I’ve heard that there were serious budget over-runs and as a consequence the completion date has been pushed out to 2020.

It’s unclear as to how this trail and the one in Jasper and Banff National Parks came to be in the 2016 federal budget. There had been no prior public consultation nor were these projects identified in the respective park management plans.

I’ve heard it suggested that they could well have originated within the executive ranks of Parks Canada itself. How could this be, you might wonder. Well, it goes back to when Conservatives were in power between 2006 and 2016. There’s so much I could say about how terribly cruel the cuts to Parks Canada staff and budget were during this time, but that will be the subject of another blog.

In the meantime, let me share with you a plausible explanation that was given to me as to why the executives of the agency could be proponents of further development in the national parks, such as these bike and pedestrian trails. Because they and many other senior managers are carry-overs from the Harper government which elevated visitor use over ecological integrity.

If true, as I suspect it is, then this also explains why the initial route for the trail was kept secret from park staff responsible for the protection and maintenance of ecological integrity. I don’t know how they eventually came to see it, but when they did, what they saw froze their blood. Someone had drawn the proposed trail cutting through known wildlife dening sites and critical corridors, not to mention severely fragmenting the Long Beach Unit even further by following the coast line.

Fortunately park staff were able to eventually convince the chief engineer responsible for the project to settle for an alignment closer to Highway 4. This route, they argued, would have less adverse impact on the ecological integrity of the park.

Even so, some 1,200 – 1,500 trees were to be cut down over the winter of 2016 and into the summer of 2017 in the process of creating a 25km long, 5m wide right of way through the park reserve.

A parking lot at the base of Radar Hill, currently used for log storage, has been enlarged. I’ve heard that it will serve as the main access point to the trail in the park reserve.

Parks Canada has pledged to take a number of steps to minimize current and future impacts, but there’s no getting around this fact: the trail further reduces critical wildlife habitat while giving greater access to the park reserve. In other words, visitor use takes precedence over ecological integrity.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to a bike and pedestrian trail linking Tofino and Ucluelet with the park reserve and each other. It is urgently needed. I’ve witnessed first-hand the increase in cyclists and hikers on Highway 4 in the park. There’s no shoulder to speak of and there’s lots of blind curves and hills, making the situation extremely dangerous.

I accept that to build this trail, some habitat needed to be destroyed; but I firmly believe that a much less expensive and less ecologically destructive route would’ve been to simply widen the highway and put a concrete meridian between the trail and the vehicle traffic. Sure, it’s not as aesthetically pleasing, but either putting ecological integrity first means something or it doesn’t. If it means anything, it must mean putting tight controls on human use. Otherwise, bit by bit, increment by increment, we will see our national parks continue to become mere shadows of their former wild selves.

Making Ecological Integrity in Canada’s National Parks the Prime Objective…again

Rock Isle Lake Banff National Park
Rock Isle Lake Banff National Park

Three days ago, Hon. McKenna, the federal environment minister, confirmed that the primary objective of Parks Canada was the maintenance and restoration of ecological integrity within the national parks (and presumably the commemorative integrity of national historic sites as well).  The confirmation came in response to an extensive public consultation process focused on the future of Canada’s national parks, according to a CBC News article.

“Maintaining and restoring ecological integrity requires limits on development in national parks, particularly those where development can impact ecosystem health,” she said, while acknowledging the significant economic benefits generated by parks through tourism.

Chateau Lake Louise and Ski Resort Banff NP
Chateau Lake Louise and Ski Resort Banff NP
Promises Made Minister McKenna and My Reaction to Them

As a first step, an independent group is to be created and given the mandate to conduct a thorough examination of Parks Canada’s practices and policies pertaining to development. Additionally, the minister said that the agency’s science capacity would be restored to at least the 2012 level, prior to the last major budget cut under the Conservative government. Even more than this, the minister signaled that the Liberal government was prepared to re-energize the commitment to: conducting state of the parks reports every five years and making them public; finalizing currently proposed national parks and national marine conservation areas; enabling greater participation of First Nations in the planning and management of national parks; and overhauling the system plan that has guided the creation of national parks for the past four decades.

Walking the Beach at Sunset, Pacific Rim NP
Walking the Beach at Sunset, Pacific Rim NP

I’m a life-long passionate advocate for keeping parks and protected areas as wild as possible, especially our national parks. So you might conclude that I would be elated by Minister McKenna’s promises. But I’m not. Instead I’m very skeptical.

The Panel on Ecological Integrity of Canada’s National Parks

Here’s the reason why. We’ve heard this all before. In 1998, the Liberals under the leadership of Jean Chretien, made good on an election promise to create a blue-chip panel of highly respected researchers in natural and social sciences to do pretty much the same thing. It was called the Panel on Ecological Integrity.

In 2000, The government released the Panel’s two volume report. In Volume One: The Call To Action, the report leads with a letter to Hon. Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage. In it, the Panel reminds the Minister that she gave them their marching orders: to do a thorough investigation into the ecological health and integrity of the national parks and into how well Parks Canada was doing at maintaining and restoring it. They were also to  advise her on what improvements should be made.

Lake Louise Banff NP
Lake Louise Banff NP

Basically they concluded that there was plenty wrong, seriously wrong, that needed fixing urgently. “Ecological integrity in Canada’s national parks is under threat from many sources and for many reasons. These threats to Canada’s sacred places present a crisis of national importance.” Some their key findings were:

  • “… Parks Canada must establish a clear vision around the primary objective of protecting ecological integrity, and align the whole organization behind this agenda”. Making this shift to an “culture of conservation, the Panel stressed, would be the “single biggest challenge” facing the agency.
  • Parks Canada needs to have its science capacity significantly boosted and more present in the planning and management of the national parks.
  • “… [H]uman use in national parks must be based on the principle of responsible experience: use without abuse,” the Panel asserted. “Parks Canada must develop a formal assessment program on both allowable and appropriate activities, and clearly define the term “basic and essential services” so that strong and consistent decisions can be made at the park level.”

The Panel’s report ends with an appendix listing their recommendations as what needed fixing…128 of them. in total.

Prairie Dogs Grasslands NP
Prairie Dogs Grasslands NP

As a sidenote, just prior to the creation of the Panel on Ecological Integrity, I had begun to work on a book on the same issue: the loss of ecological integrity within the national parks. Titled “Phantom Parks: The Struggle to Save Canada’s National Parks,” the book went on sale around about the same time as the Panel’s report was made public. The two complimented each other very well. Our findings and conclusions were essentially the same. While theirs was written primarily for politicians and senior government staff, mine took an informal approach in the hope of engaging broader and more general audiences. As some measure of success in this regard, I was told that the initial print run of 5000 copies had sold-out within a year of the book’s publication.

In the Aftermath of the Panel’s Report

To their credit, Minister Copps and the Liberals lost little time in beginning to act on some of the Panel’s recommendations. For example, they created a place at the executive level of science. They also encouraged Parks Canada to make the maintenance and restoration of ecological integrity every staff member’s job. But all too soon, the government’s attention drifted away and business as usual crept back in.

Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park
Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park

With the Liberals defeated in the federal election of 2006 and replaced by the Conservatives led by Hon. Stephen Harper, programs for maintaining and restoring ecological integrity began to undergo significant cuts to their staff and budgets. Meanwhile business interests within and around national parks gained a receptive benefactor in the Prime Minister. Perhaps one of the most egregious examples is the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park – a glass-floored observation platform cantilevered more 900 feet above the Sunwapta Valley floor. It was built for and is operated Brewster Travel Company. Under the Jasper Park Management Plan, it should never have been allowed.

Emboldened by Brewster Travel Company’s development, several other large business interests have attempted to expand their operations. In 2012, Maligne Tours proposed to significantly upgrade their operation at Maligne Lake; in 2014, after considerable debate, the company was given approval to proceed with a scaled back version. Meanwhile Lake Louise Ski Resort has been pressing Parks Canada to allow it to also expand its operation. Each expansion takes away and erodes the ecological integrity of the park. It’s what some call “death by a thousand cuts.”

Where Does That Leave Us/Me?

Once again, the Liberals are back in power and once again we hear them saying they’re going to ensure the ecological integrity of the national parks is maintained and restored and that limits will be placed on development. History appears to be repeating itself. Will it be different this time? For the sake of the national parks and all that they represent, I truly hope so. But I remain deeply skeptical. I’ll want to see real change or at least positive signs that it is coming when I visit the national parks, commencing this summer.

Strengthening the Migratory Birds Convention Act in Canada

Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit

A couple of days ago, the Vancouver Sun and the Ottawa Citizen ran an opinion piece under the headline: “Governments must act now to protect migratory birds.” The piece follow up on an in-depth analysis of the Migratory Birds Convention Act conducted by the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria on the behest of Nature Canada and the Friends of Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

The analysis runs over 30 pages and provides an exceptional pinpointing of critical weaknesses in the Act and the management of the migratory bird sanctuaries. The report concludes with a series of recommendations which aim to:

• strengthen protection for migratory birds and their habitat inside of sanctuaries,
• better protect habitat outside of sanctuaries,
• address the incidental take of migratory birds, and
• work in tandem with the BC government to improve permitting and enforcement.

Specific recommendations

*Define “habitat” in the Migratory Birds Sancturary Regulations (MBSR) and ensure that the definition is sufficiently broad so that it covers all necessary aspects of migratory bird habitat.

* Amend the MBSR to prohibit activities adjacent to the boundary of a migratory bird sanctuary that harm habitat inside the sanctuary.

*Amend the MBSR and Migratory Birds Regulations to include a comprehensive, science-based definition of “disturb” and “destroy.” The definition of “disturb” should make it clear that rendering habitat around a nest unsuitable disturbs a nest.

*The federal government must convene experts to scientifically determine what migratory bird habitat needs to be protected outside of migratory bird sanctuaries, and provide strong, legal protection for these areas.

*The federal government must follow through with the idea to amend section 5 of the MBR to ensure that incidental take encompasses killing migratory birds (not just destroying nests and eggs). The federal government must develop a permitting scheme for incidental take. Government can build on the extensive materials developed in the 2007-2010 period to develop this scheme. Government must design the scheme to ensure that industrial activities and other activities and structures avoid or minimize incidental take, reducing it from current levels. The scheme must also take into account industrial activities and other activities and structures’ individual and cumulative impact on migratory bird habitat.

Such a scheme could help better protect migratory birds by requiring companies and other actors to avoid or minimize incidental take, reducing the amount of incidental take that currently occurs. However, there is a real danger that the scheme, if not designed correctly, will merely legitimize harm to migratory birds and their nests. For this reason, the permitting regime must be designed carefully in order to ensure that it aligns with the purpose of the MBCA, which is to protect and conserve migratory birds — as populations and individual birds — and their nests.

In addition, to ensure that the permitting scheme does contribute to improving the protection of migratory birds in Canada, as opposed to simply granting government permission for harm to migratory birds, government must ensure that the regulatory scheme is properly funded. This includes funding for monitoring and enforcement, and for the requisite science needed to inform the various steps of the risk management framework.

*When government identifies new critical habitat for a species, they must update the critical habitat information posted online in the SARA registry, in a timely manner.

*The BC provincial government must clarify the status of existing developments in migratory bird sanctuaries located wholly or partially on provincial Crown land. If no permits exist, the provincial government must require people carrying out existing activities, such as people operating marinas, to apply for a permit. All new permits must include stringent conditions that require the activities to be conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner within the sanctuary. If permits already exist, the provincial government must modify the permits in order to include permit conditions that require the activities to be conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner within the sanctuary.

*The BC provincial government must create a policy for permitting decisions made pursuant to section 10(1) of the MBSR, and make it publicly available. This policy must set out detailed criteria for making a permitting decision pursuant to section 10(1) of the MBSR. Similar to the federal permitting policy, the provincial policy must prohibit the granting of permits for commercial and industrial activities in migratory bird sanctuaries, and state that the permit will be denied if the proposed activity will harm migratory birds, their eggs, nests or habitat, or is inconsistent with the purpose for which the protected area was established or not consistent with the management plan of the protected area. The policy should also make it clear that a current permit may be cancelled or suspended if it is necessary for the conservation of wildlife or wildlife habitat in a protected area, and that terms and conditions may be added to permits in order to minimize the impact of an activity on wildlife and wildlife habitat.

*The federal and provincial government must create and publicly post an enforcement agreement that clarifies which level of government is responsible for enforcement activities in BC’s migratory bird sanctuaries.

*Ensure that the federal or provincial government divisions tasked with enforcement in migratory bird sanctuaries have adequate staff and adequate resources to carry out their responsibilities effectively.
Miscellaneous: improve signage

*Ensure that migratory bird sanctuaries have adequate signage.

*The federal government should undertake a science-based, modern reassessment of which birds should be protected by the MBCA.

*The analysis also include a couple of key issues pertaining to the Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary found near the Town of Sidney, BC

I strongly encourage everyone who value birds and all the benefits they provide to become more informed about the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the 90 migratory bird sanctuaries scattered across the country. And then, to write to Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change calling upon her and her government to implement these recommendations.

If you’d like to learn more about the three migratory bird sanctuaries found with the Capital Regional District or about some of the best birding spots in the region, please contact me.

Ring Neck Duck
Ring Neck Duck