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Priorities Of Parks Canada Questioned By Watchdog Group

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As Canadians today celebrate the country’s annual Parks Day, a watchdog group is questioning whether conservation, the mandated “first priority” of the Parks Canada Agency, has taken a back seat to increased visitation and revenue generation.

The eighth annual report from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), released this week, focuses on challenges in the management of national parks that have emerged over the past decade. Protecting Canada’s National Parks: A Call For Renewed Commitment To Nature Conservation says a shift in priorities has resulted in developments being approved behind closed doors, with little to no public input, and not enough attention paid to ecological factors.

“National parks are supposed to be the gold standard for conservation in our country,” Alison Woodley, national director of the CPAWS Parks Program, said in a release. “If Parks Canada shifts away from its conservation mandate, where will our wildlife and wilderness be safe?”

Four projects in the Canadian Rockies are cited as prime examples:

  • An expansion of the Lake Louise Ski Resort in Banff National Park into legally protected wilderness;
  • Commercial accommodations proposed for Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park that infringe on the management plan;
  • A $66 million paved bike path through caribou and grizzly bear habitat from Jasper to Lake Louise in Banff that appeared in the 2016 federal budget with no prior public discussion or environmental review; and
  • The Glacier Skywalk in Jasper, opened in 2014, which turned a public viewpoint into a private, pay-for-use tour stop (packages start at $32 CAD) in spite of public opposition.

“We have put forward 17 recommendations to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change that we believe will help get Parks Canada back on track to conserving nature as the first priority in our national parks,” Woodley said. “We hope the new government will act immediately to stop developments in Banff and Jasper, and restore Parks Canada’s culture as a science-based nature conservation organization working in the long-term public interest. The future of wildlife and wilderness in our national parks depends on refocusing on nature first and foremost in their management.”

As with the National Park Service’s enabling act, the Canada National Parks Act states that parks shall be maintained to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” In particular, the act says: “Maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, shall be the first priority of the Minister when considering all aspects of the management of parks.”

Yet in 2015-16, only 13 percent of Parks Canada’s spending on national parks was dedicated to conservation. The agency’s last publicly available report indicates that less than half of national park ecosystems measured were deemed to be in “good condition,” more than a third were in declining health, while 41 percent of park ecosystems remained to be assessed. And over the past five years, there has been a 31 percent decrease in Parks Canada’s conservation staffing while visitor experience staffing has risen by 9 percent, according to data from Parks Canada’s Reports on Plans and Priorities.

Parks Canada’s national parks, park reserves and marine conservation areas saw 13.5 million visitors in 2014-15, a 6 percent increase over 2013-14. Numbers are expected to rise in 2017, when admission to all Parks Canada sites will be free to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation. In a note that reflects recent criticism that the National Park Service has not done enough to institute carrying capacities, the CPAWS report says Parks Canada should see that “visitation is carefully managed to ensure we don’t inadvertently ‘love our parks to death,’ and strictly limiting infrastructure development to maintain the wilderness habitat needs of park wildlife.”

As if to support the claims of CPAWS, Parks Canada this week announced $70 million in funding for three different areas – Prince Edward Island, Elk Island National Park, and Northwest Territories – with almost all of the money earmarked for infrastructure and visitor facilities.

“These investments will ensure safe, high-quality visitor experiences, help improve the quality of life of our middle class, and grow the local economies in the capital region of Alberta,” Randy Boissonnault, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage and member of Parliament for Edmonton Center, said when announcing the investment in Elk Island National Park.

That sentiment, highlighting economic development and tourism over conservation, was echoed by the nation’s top environment minister when announcing funding for Northwest Territories.

“Today’s investments will provide Canadians with more opportunities to learn about and experience the diverse cultures and landscapes of the north, help improve the quality of life of our middle class as well as support the economic development and tourism sector in local northern communities,” Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and the minister responsible for Parks Canada.

CPAWS did say it is encouraged by promises from the new federal government, elected in 2015, to limit development in parks, refocus on protecting their ecological integrity, reinvest in science-based management, and restore transparent decision-making. In particular, the group praised the cancellation of a giant Mother Canada statue proposed for Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the strengthening of legislation for the Rouge National Urban Park to focus on protecting ecological integrity. Parks Canada also announced funding for Banff to improve forest health earlier this year.

However, the previous government repealed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in 2012, removing the legal requirement to conduct environmental assessments on projects in national parks. Since then, CPAWS says it has “observed less rigor, quality and transparency in environmental reviews in national parks. Public reporting on the well-being of national park ecosystems has effectively disappeared, with no new park-specific State of Park reports being posted publicly since 2012.” Parks Canada last reported to Parliament in 2011, which is out of compliance with its legislative requirement to report every two years.

“These problems are not without precedent,” the report says. “In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’90s, there were periods when tourism and commercial interests threatened to overtake the public interest in protecting our parks. However, each time, Canadians rallied to protect their parks, and with strong political leadership, the management focus was shifted back towards conservation. We are hopeful that this current trend will be similarly turned around with strong political leadership and a supportive public.”

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