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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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