… business wants more room

January 27, 2014

UPDATE: The proposal by Maligne Tours Ltd. to build a hotel for ‘premium customers’ at Maligne Lake and the ongoing controversy over this issue can be followed on our Blog and also on our Facebook page.

 

Once the most highly respected parks service in the world, Parks Canada’s reputation is starting to slide.

Funding cuts

Federal funding for the national parks has been cut so drastically field managers of the individual parks are faced with the impossible task of maintaining/repairing infrastructure, trying to increase visitor numbers, dealing with new projects resulting from aggressive lobbying of government by local business interests while, at the same time, trying to monitor wildlife –including ‘listed’, as well as potential, ‘species at risk’.

New parks

Successive federal governments, anxious to improve their images with an environmentally concerned public are happy to announce they have created new national parks in the Arctic regions – some of them three to four times the size of Jasper National Park. The problem is that inadequate money is provided to run them and a lot of that now comes from the Rocky Mountain National Parks – the ‘cash cows’ of the system.

Decreased attendance and interest

In the 1990s, entry fees to the mountain parks increased and the free and very popular interpretive walks and presentations by Parks Canada staff were cut back or discontinued. This may have saved Parks some money but it certainly resulted in decreased attendance and therefore public interest in the parks.

Business steps in

Now the agency is trying another tack. It wants to increase visitor numbers even though Banff and Jasper National Parks’ numbers have been relatively stable for the past few years – in spite of a world-wide recession. But the visitors that have been coming are spending less money and avoiding expensive hotels and restaurants. As far as business is concerned, people enjoying nature and wilderness are not spending money in the right places. Consequently these local interests have aggressively lobbied the federal government and Parks Canada in Ottawa so that Parks and tourism interests are now ‘playing the same tune … and in consistent harmony’. Commercial activities that would have been unthinkable a few short years ago are now being proposed.

Muddying the management plans

But to allow these inappropriate activities in national parks – protected by the legislation of the Canada National Parks Act (CNPA) – Parks Canada had to make changes to the individual parks’ management plans. By internally developing new guidelines in Ottawa, management plans for all the Rocky Mountain national parks – Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay – now appear so obtusely worded and lacking in specifics that it will be very difficult to hold the agency accountable for any diminishment of ecological integrity.

Downplaying protection of nature

Under the CNPA the first priority must be given to ‘ecological integrity’ (the protection of nature) but Parks Canada in Ottawa manages to avoid this by making ecological integrity equal to ‘visitor experience’ and ‘education’ – (the ‘three-legged stool’ approach). Now, the agency states that protection of nature has been so strong in the past that efforts must now concentrate on the other two legs of the stool so they can catch up. It seems to forget that funding cuts resulted in little or no monitoring of wildlife populations or ecosystems being done for the past decade. The resulting lack of data makes it almost impossible to make well-informed management decisions.

Concern by parks’ staff

Some staff who have worked for decades in the mountain parks spoke out against what they saw as a trend that would lead to the gradual destruction of these protected sites that make up just 3% of Canada’s land mass.

Downgrading the warden service

Senior management in Ottawa did not take kindly to opposition from its field staff and the national park warden service was harshly dealt with. A battle in the courts ensued over the advisability  of carrying firearms while dealing with increased poaching and potentially violent individuals and Parks Canada’s final decision resulted in the virtual decimation of this world-famous park warden service. Less than 100 of them are still ‘National Parks Wardens’ but the remaining 300 or so have now been stripped of their wardens’ uniforms and renamed Resource Management and Public Safety personnel with the generic uniform of the Visitor Services and Technical Services staff. It is not hard to imagine what effect this has had on the morale of the present membership of this famous organization that celebrates its centennial this year.

Downgrading science

Next on the list were biologists and other researchers. Funding for research has been cut to the bone resulting in a serious lack of data on wildlife populations. Science positions, responsible for monitoring the ecological integrity of the park are being phased out and the money saved is slated for a legion of new ‘communications staff’ – well versed in verbal dexterity –  to convince the public that ecological integrity is still top priority with Parks Canada.

The consequences

The results of these new policies are now becoming evident, including:

  • A decision by Parks Canada to ignore specialists’ advice and classify potential ski expansion by Marmot Basin into woodland caribou habitat as a ‘substantial environmental gain’
  • A decision by Parks (now in partnership with the International Mountain Biking Association) to allow virtually all the acclaimed hiking trails in the Athabasca Valley to become ‘multi-use’ for hikers and bikers.
  • The proposed introduction of new activities such as hang-gliding, traction-kiting, zip-lining, via ferrata and canopy tours – aping the overcrowded and wilderness-poor European Alps
  • A proposal by Parks Canada to the Canadian Environmental Assessment agency to remove the national parks ski hills from the list of regulations requiring a comprehensive assessment and replace it with a simple screening assessment under Parks Canada.
  • The ultimate travesty of a proposed ‘Glacier Discovery Walk’ by the U.S.-owned Brewster Travel Canada. This huge ‘skywalk’  would be built at a present popular viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway where visitors would be charged $15-$30 for virtually the same view. This would set a very dangerous precedent for other businesses to apply for leaseholds along this renowned highway in a World Heritage Site.

Conclusion

A nation’s icons are very important to the psyche of its people and in Canada the national parks are right up there with the Maple Leaf, the beaver and the Mounties. The federal government must recognize this and reinstitute secure funding for the parks so they can continue to draw national and international visitors and allow Parks Canada to escape from the tangled web of catering to local business interests who want to make economics the bottom line instead of ecological integrity.