A brown bear walking down train tracks towards a moving train A\J Photo: wildernessprints.com

LAST JUNE, I returned to Banff National Park after a long absence. It was good to be back. Banff, Canada’s first and most famous national park, is an important part of my home range. My daughter was born in Banff ’s Mineral Springs Hospital, her birth witnessed by a herd of curious elk just outside the window. I hiked its trails as a child, and I have since explored many of its wildest valleys and passes. Every year, I guide curious university students deep into its backcountry, so that they may learn something of its magic as they contemplate their relationship with wilderness and the tenuous nature of its future. In a sense, Banff is a source for me, a kind of constant headwater for the river that has become my life.

Despite having been out of the country for the better part of a year, I couldn’t help but know that Parks Canada Agency, the bureaucracy charged with safeguarding Canada’s national parks, marine conservation areas and heritage sites, was celebrating its 100th birthday in 2011. It invested well over a million dollars in a public relations campaign, including advertising, books, films, even a reality TV show. The good news was everywhere. (It is difficult to know how much Parks Canada has spent on its centenary PR campaign. I have tallied expenditures exceeding $1-million for a few projects, but Parks Canada was unwilling or unable to provide me with the total amount spent. They suggested I use the Access to Information and Privacy process.)

This is “an opportunity to recognize the great Canadians who had the foresight to provide a great gift to future generations and led our nation in building the national dream of having Canada’s nature protected and celebrated,” wrote Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle in the “CEO’s Message” accompanying the 2010-2011 Parks Canada Agency Corporate Plan. “Parks Canada’s network of national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas has become symbolic of our national identity and is recognized internationally as the greatest among the great.”

The media, for their part, were not inclined to spoil the party. In a partnership with Parks Canada, Canadian Geographic and its sister magazine Canadian Geographic Travel each published pleasant issues about how beautiful and wonderful our national parks are. Their parent, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, received $276,000 from Parks Canada “to dedicate the April 2011 issue of Canadian Geographic magazine to the celebration of the centennial of Parks Canada,” and an additional $175,000 to “inform Canadians about national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas in such a manner that excites curiosity and may stimulate visits.”

The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s most respected newspapers, published a series of travelogues about how inspiring it is to be able to drive into a national park and stay in a comfortable hotel while enjoying breathtaking views without so much as breaking a sweat. None of these stories mentioned Parks Canada’s obligation to maintain or restore ecological integrity, which, it might surprise Canadians to know, is actually Parks Canada’s first priority. During its program devoted to our national parks in September, the CBC’s Cross Country Checkup also perpetuated the myth that Parks Canada is saddled with an irreconcilable dual mandate to both protect our national parks and ensure that tourists can enjoy them.

It goes without saying that there is much to celebrate about Canada’s national parks and the agency that has shepherded them into the 21st century. As the mainstream media have assured us, our parks are indeed wonderful, some of the most beautiful, inspiring and memorable places in the world. We should be very proud of the fact that we have decided to not turn them into coal mines or clear cuts.

But in its frenzy to celebrate the positive, Parks Canada has forsaken the opportunity, 100 years on, to take a hard look at the way it manages our national parks and whether it is, in fact, doing its job. Enthralled by the pretty wrapping paper and the fancy ribbons served up by Parks Canada, an uncritical media has forgotten to strip them away and open the box to see what’s inside.

BANFF is perhaps the most controversial of Canada’s 42 national parks. Designated as Canada’s first national park 125 years ago, it was conceived primarily as a tourist destination and cash cow. Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, an American railroader and Canadian Pacific Railway’s vice-president at the time, said, “Since we can’t export the scenery, we shall have to import the tourists,” which Sir Sanford Fleming, the CPR’s chief engineer, knew would be “a source of general profit.” Until the 1960s, this was the dominant management philosophy in Canada’s national parks. Protecting ecological integrity was, at best, an afterthought.

Thankfully, much has changed over the years to temper Van Horne’s and Fleming’s avaricious designs on Canada’s wilderness. Since Banff, more than three dozen parks have been added to the system. Perhaps more importantly, Parks Canada’s mandate has changed, at least putatively, from one of profit-generating tourism to one of environmental protection. This transformation reached its apotheosis after a blue-ribbon panel appointed by then Minister of Canadian Heritage Sheila Copps in 1998 found that Canada’s national parks were in a desperate state. In its final 2000 report, Unimpaired for Future Generations, the Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada’s National Parks gave failing grades to 38 of Canada’s 39 national parks, Banff foremost among them. The system was broken.

Indeed, 31 of our national parks were found to suffer from significant to severe ecological stress as a result of human activities. Only those in remote parts of Northern Canada, which have little development and see few visitors, appeared to have retained their natural ecological integrity, though the spectre of climate change has begun unraveling even them. Protection then, at least until 2000, was the result of inaccessibility rather than responsible management based on sound science and good decision making.

In the face of such a dreadful report card and the subsequent public outrage at the state of our national parks, Parliament adopted some of the panel’s recommendations, most notably the need for stronger and clearer legislation. In 2001, the Canada National Parks Act was amended to include section 8(2), which made the “maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, the first priority of the Minister when considering all aspects of the management of parks.”

According to University of Calgary law professor Shaun Fluker, this was an important change for it “categorically mandated the maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity as the first priority in the national parks. In doing so, Parliament seemingly charted a preservationist direction for the parks and established a new purpose for them: the preservation of nature for its own sake – apart from any human consideration.”

Since 2001, Parks Canada has made some significant improvements, all of which have been duly noted as part of its anniversary bash. Fire, an important but hitherto suppressed part of healthy natural systems, was reintroduced to many national parks and habitat was restored to better meet the needs of wildlife. Bison and black-footed ferrets were reintroduced to Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park, returning the ecosystem to a state it hasn’t seen in more than a century. Fences and overpasses have made the Trans-Canada Highway through Banff safer for motorists and wildlife. Furthermore, Nahanni National Park Reserve was significantly expanded and three new parks were added. Now, 42 national parks represent 28 of Canada’s natural regions (up from 39 and 25 respectively in 2003). Three new marine conservation areas have also been designated, two in the Great Lakes region and one on the St. Lawrence estuary, bringing the total to four. On the surface, at least, it seemed a new era of enlightenment, expansion and restoration had begun.

ON MY WAY through Banff National Park, I decided to leave the mad rush of the Trans-Canada Highway at Lake Louise and drive the lazy Bow Valley Parkway. I hoped to catch a glimpse of two yearling grizzly bears that had been orphaned three weeks earlier when a train killed their mother. She and two other adults had already succumbed to our need for speed in 2011, and I worried about the fate of her inexperienced offspring – no orphaned cub has ever lived to adulthood in the busy Bow Valley.

Despite Parks Canada’s litany of accomplishments, the state of our national parks leaves much to be desired. Commitments made by both Liberal and Conservative governments to complete the network by the year 2000 remain unfulfilled. The system of national parks and marine conservation areas are only 70 per cent and 10 per cent complete respectively. Meanwhile, the manifold threats to wildlife habitat, fisheries and watershed health, many of which affect species at risk, continue to accelerate, and new and improved scientific research indicates that we will need to protect much more of Canada if we want to safeguard our natural capital in the face of climate change and expanding resource extraction. Yolanda Wiersma and Thomas D. Nudds reported in a 2009 issue of Biological Conservation that if Canada’s protected-area network, the backbone of which is our national parks, is to safeguard all mammal species, we need to add a minimum of 22 more reserves covering at least 59,400 square kilometres.

Although size matters, what happens inside our national parks is as important as how big they are. Here, many of our national parks fail miserably. As I made clear in my book, The Grizzly Manifesto, Banff National Park is a very unsafe place to be a grizzly bear (or a wolf or a caribou). Parks Canada hasn’t met its own mortality or habitat security targets for more than a decade. So many bears die in Banff National Park that it has become something of a mortality sink for the regional population, which, in Alberta at least, is listed as a threatened species.

I worry about Banff Park’s grizzlies in light of what happened to the park’s mountain caribou, which have the dubious distinction of being the first federally listed species at risk to disappear from a national park. Although it was an avalanche that ultimately wiped the tiny herd from the face of the Earth in 2009, it was unsustainable levels of human activity inside and outside the park, as well as Parks Canada’s neglect, that spelled their doom. As one senior Parks Canada bureaucrat told me over a cold beer in a dark Edmonton pub, “That was a mistake. We should have seen that coming and we didn’t.”

Banff is not alone. A 2009 study, “Evaluating Ecological Integrity in National Parks” by Joleen Timko and John Innes, found that Parks Canada was not effectively protecting ecological integrity in all four of the national parks they assessed – Gwaii Hanaas, Pacific Rim, Kluane and Waterton Lakes – in large part because park managers were not adequately monitoring the priority indicators they had identified.

In fact, the agency’s own state-of-the-park reports paint a different picture than Parks Canada’s public relations efforts. In Pacific Rim National Park, on Vancouver Island’s West Coast, only nine of 27 measures used to define ecological integrity were considered “good” and “stable” in 2008. Four measures were defined as “poor” and “declining,” and only one had improved. The park’s marbled murrelet population, listed under the federal Species at Risk Act as threatened, declined by 68 per cent between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, and continues to decline at approximately 10 per cent per year. Its future is in serious doubt.

In Ontario, tiny Point Pelee National Park may be one of Canada’s most threatened. Although Parks Canada claims that it is “actively and successfully managing ecosystem issues within the park,” all but one of the ecosystem indicators is in decline. Despite removing cottages, roads and other structures, and culling out-of-control white-tailed deer and cormorant populations, ecological integrity continues to decline, largely because of “the intense human footprint.”

It would be nice to be able to evaluate the health of all of Canada’s national parks, but state-of-the-park reports don’t exist for over 75 per cent of them. Given this situation, it is hard to imagine how Latourelle concluded that Canada’s network of federally protected national parks, heritage sites and marine conservation areas is the “greatest among the great.”

None of this should come as a surprise. According to Fluker’s study of recent court cases, the strengthening of the national parks legislation in 2001 has done little to protect the parks from degradation. Despite Parks Canada’s overly optimistic claims to the contrary, Fluker maintains that both Parks Canada and the federal court have “read down the priority of the ecological integrity-first priority as simply a factor to be taken into account in parks decision making. Not only is the preservation of nature not the first priority in the national parks, it isn’t even a presumption in parks decision making.”

AS I TURNED onto the Bow Valley Parkway, one of the cubs walked out of the trees to boldly graze dandelions. Its more cautious sibling paced in the trees, wary of the cars, trucks and campers stopped on the roadside. I quickly moved on, glad they were still alive, but not optimistic that they would live long enough to add cubs of their own to Banff ’s besieged population.

Less than three months later, on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup, federal Minister of the Environment Peter Kent, the man responsible for Canada’s national parks, confirmed Fluker’s findings and my pessimism. As if channeling Sir Sanford Fleming, Kent explained how important national parks are for attracting foreign tourist dollars and lamented how hard it is for commercial operators to turn a profit in our national parks.

“There are those who would protect almost to the pristine extreme a space, but which would almost be inaccessible to most Canadians,” he said. “So there needs to be a balance. There needs to be, you know, we need to protect the various lichens and snails, the plant and animal habitat areas, while at the same time making these places wonderful spaces, Canada’s national treasures, available to Canadians.” Kent’s comments indicate that Parks Canada has reverted to its old ways, where parks are for people and the businesses that serve them.

The primary justification for this renaissance in “balanced” park management is declining use. Visitation fell by 15 per cent between 1995 and 2007. Greg Fenton, superintendent of Jasper National Park, says the “very future of the parks depends on getting more people to actually visit and appreciate them.”

This fear has inspired Parks Canada to spend less time and money on what it calls “heritage resource conservation” and more on increasing visitation and “enhancing visitor experience.” Some of Canada’s new park-management plans make it a priority to increase visitation by two per cent per year, even though it’s well known that more visitors is often bad for ecological integrity. To this end, the former environment minister Jim Prentice approved a host of new activities in our national parks, including ziplining and canopy tours, designed to titillate and amuse. Parks Canada’s budget reflects the federal government’s changing priorities. Overall, its budget has declined by 24 per cent since the 1994-1995 fiscal year. In 2007, Parks Canada spent $214 million on heritage-resources conservation. By 2010, it had dropped by 10 per cent. Meanwhile, the coffers dedicated to “visitor experience” skyrocketed from $167-million in 2007 to $225-million in 2010, which now trumps the $192.6-million spent on conservation. Projections for 2011-12 show the trend will continue.

Such a dramatic reallocation of resources would be justified if the future of our parks was at risk, but public opinion polls reveal strong support for parks in user and non-user populations, and both groups rate preservation ahead of recreation and tourism.

To create a better, more respectful relationship with the natural world, people need natural spaces that provide them with positive outdoor experiences. But in our national parks, which are supposed to provide the preeminent level of protection for Canada’s wildlife and ecosystems, we must find a way to enjoy our experiences on nature’s terms, not our own. If we don’t, we will lose, in the words of Canada’s first commissioner of national parks James Harkin, “the very thing that distinguishes [our national parks] from the outside world.”

Jeff Gailus is an award-winning writer and author of The Grizzly Manifesto and Little Black Lies: Corporate and Political Spin in the Global War for Oil.

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