Saving the National Parks from Politicians

Updated March 8, 2014


Prospectus for a new National Parks Commission  – by Ben Gadd


In my 45 years of enjoying the national parks of the Rockies, and doing what I can to protect them, I have learned three things.

1. The greatest danger to the parks lies within them. I’m speaking of the commercial operators there.

Of which I have been one. But not like some. I have always counted the park first and my very small business second.

Alas, some of the larger operators—Brewster, the Fairmont hotel chain, Maligne Tours and the ski areas among them—have for many years been putting profits ahead of the health of the national parks in which they are privileged to do business.

These corporations have demanded and received concessions from Parks Canada that are outrageous. Examples: a new convention centre at Lake Louise, despite a blue-ribbon Parks Canada panel that recommended against it; a tawdry “skywalk” along the Icefields Parkway; ever more ski runs and on-the-hill facilities, plus new summer activities at the ski areas that contravene established park values.

2. Clearly, corporate money can buy enough influence in Ottawa to get whatever it wants. This is a serious weakness of our democracy, and it is especially hard on national parks, because the entire national-park system reports to one person, who is a minister in the government of the day. A politician.

3. Therefore, we Canadians have to wrest control of our national parks away from politicians. Instead, the parks system should be run by an independent commission.

Ever hear this story?

In 2002 the superintendent of Jasper National Park did a brave thing. He acted forthrightly to protect the caribou in his national park.

Why was this a brave thing to do?

Studies had documented the ongoing decline of caribou in the park. Mountain caribou were listed by the Canadian government as “threatened” in Alberta and British Columbia, a classification just one step below “endangered.”

Jasper’s caribou are extremely important. Among them is the only herd in the entire Rocky Mountains that remains on protected lands year-round, rather than migrating out of the park in the winter and into provincially controlled areas where logging and mining are destroying caribou habitat and poachers are waiting. In other words, this is the only herd in the entire Rocky Mountains that has a hope in hell of survival. Yet a Parks Canada study has given it only 40 years to extinction. (As of 2013, the end is much closer than that.)

Studies have shown that the Maligne Lake area is critical winter habitat for these animals. Coincidentally, it is also critical habitat for cross-country skiers. For them, a road to the lake has been kept plowed all winter. A network of ski trails cuts through the heart of the caribou’s winter range. Wolves have been regularly following the road, then the ski trails, to get at the caribou. Dogs have been running around off-leash and chasing the caribou.

Park superintendent Ron Hooper took this all into account and decided that it had to stop. He announced that, come November, the road would be closed until May. Just as an experiment, for a few years, to see whether it benefitted the herd.

You can imagine how long it took Jasper’s ski-boosters to get on the phone to Ottawa. A few days later the road-closure was cancelled by Parks Canada’s “CEO,” Alan Latourelle. Later we heard that the minister himself had nixed any “unnecessary” road closures in the national parks. The superintendent got his hands slapped.

Skiers 1, caribou 0. In a World Heritage Site.

The lesson here is that protected areas need protection themselves. They need protection from politicians. Get a couple of whiskeys into most any protected-area manager and stories of political interference in their jobs will come boiling out. My conclusion: we have to get protected lands out from under direct political control.

Name your government agency, and the chain of command leads to someone who is either a politician or a political appointee. These people have a way of micro-managing anything that their political friends have a stake in.

What can be done to prevent this kind of thing? When it comes to Parks Canada we could revive an old and honorable tradition: the independent federal commission. 

For many years Parks Canada was called the “National Parks Commission.” I still find old signs in out-of-the-way spots in the mountain parks, advising hikers about one thing or another, with the letters “NPC” at the bottom.

The idea of an independent federal commission is precisely to keep a particularly sensitive branch of the government free of political interference. The Canadian parliament has spawned such commissions, most notably the National Capital Commission, which has looked after government land and buildings in Ottawa, and the CBC, now called the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation but originally named the Canadian Broadcasting Commission. The NCC and the CBC have both lost their independence, but we still convene royal commissions from time to time to investigate national issues that we cannot entrust the government of the day to handle impartially.

The U.S. government has dozens of federal commissions. Well-known examples include the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Labor Relations Board.

A federal commission is a committee. In an independent federal commission the committee is truly independent. It makes its decisions without recourse to whatever political party is in power. The committee votes, and the thing is done. It’s as simple as that.

The old National Parks Commission was never fully independent. It always reported to a federal cabinet minister. But I’d love to see the commission revived and updated to achieve this sort of independence. It could be a model for protected-area management around the world.

Here is how I envisage the new National Parks Commission. We’d need about two dozen people on it. They would be:

  • A few outstanding biologists and ecologists, whose collective depth of experience would cover the broad range of vegetation and wildlife protected in the parks.
  • A geologist and a geographer who understand the landscapes that support the wildlife.
  • A historian, an archeologist and an anthropologist to look after the cultural-history components of the system.
  • An expert in park-related aboriginal affairs, who would be aboriginal.
  • An expert on the use of official languages. 
  • A specialist in park interpretation and other educational efforts.
  • A lawyer familiar with Parks Canada’s enabling legislation and the regulations that support it, plus a political scientist with expertise on federal/provincial jurisdictional issues and cross-boundary problems.
  • Someone familiar with the wide range of recreational pursuits enjoyed in the parks.
  • A representative of the many “Friends of the Park” non-profit cooperating associations. 
  • Experts in handling visitors, dealing with transportation routes through the parks, regulating park businesses, enforcing the law and ensuring public safety.
  • An accountant to handle the agency’s money and work out its annual budget.
  • Someone to deal with staffing concerns, and someone else to represent the interests of Parks Canada’s many employees
  • A watchdog member, who would have the right to speak to any park employee at any time and to view any park document at any time.

These commissioners would be selected by an all-party committee of Parliament on the basis of merit. Thus, the appointments would be civil-service appointments, not “political appointments.” Political appointments are defined as such in the regulations that run the federal government. They are openly subject to ministerial patronage. Thus, political appointees are usually replaced with every regime change. No political appointees on the National Parks Commission, please.

Also not represented on the commission would be anyone with for-profit business interests in the national parks. The commercial sector in the parks needs to be regulated, not placed in charge of anything. Business has too much presence in the parks and has exercised too much influence. Of course, the business sector, along with every other segment of Canadian society, would be consulted by the commission on matters of policy and when major issues arise.

Here is what the new NPC would do.

  • Create park policy, in accordance with legislation—and make sure that employees follow it.
  • Draft new legislation for introduction to Parliament and regulations to present to the federal cabinet for approval.
  • Prepare Parks Canada’s annual budget, which would appear as a line item in the overall federal budget, not as a sub-item in the Department of Environment budget in competition with other functions of the department.
  • Appoint park superintendents. 
  • Hold public hearings on park issues—real hearings, with the press present and decision-making commissioners on the panel, not the meaningless “open houses” Parks Canada has been using to pass off its fait-accompli plans.
  • Accept information and ideas from the public at any time, such that any citizen could go straight to the commission’s watchdog member with a concern.
  • Stay in touch with other agencies of the federal government to prevent working at cross purposes, and maintain close contact with provincial and international agencies to keep the regions surrounding the parks as ecologically healthy as possible.

The commission would meet every few months to make decisions. Each commission member would have a staff and a budget adequate to the task of making those decisions intelligent ones. The commission chair would be elected annually by commission members. All appointments would be reviewed regularly, and poorly performing members could be replaced.

If this sounds expensive, keep in mind that the commission would take the place of the entire Parks Canada bureaucracy, from the level of park superintendent up. The cost would be no greater; probably less.

I’d like to emphasize that, like the Auditor General, the National Parks Commission would report directly to Parliament as a whole, not to a particular minister. Giving one MP authority over the entire national-park system of Canada—and that’s the present situation—is a terrible idea. It makes the whole system vulnerable to political corruption and snap decisions, and it gives the agency a distorted time horizon. Parks are supposed to be protected in perpetuity, not just until the next election.

  • So the commission, not a government minister, would control Parks Canada. 
  • Decisions deemed especially important would require more than a simple majority vote to pass. I’m thinking of the annual budget, selection of the chairperson, policy updates, park-management plans, draft legislation and regulations, that sort of thing. Parliament and the courts could always intervene if the situation demanded it.
  • To override the actions of the National Parks Commission, you’d need a parliamentary resolution. Such resolutions are subject to parliamentary debate. They can receive a lot of public scrutiny and are thus unlikely to be introduced for purposes such as approving some corporation’s hotel expansion.
  • Political independence also requires financial independence. Thus, Canada’s national-park system would become entirely tax-supported. As things stand, Parks Canada is a “special agency,” meaning that it functions more as a corporation than a government department. It is expected to pay its own way as much as possible. This means collecting royalties from park businesses such as ski areas and cruise-boat operations, and charging visitors at the gates. Wrong, wrong. Entry fees, which keep going up, discriminate against low-income Canadians, who have as much right to enjoy their parks as do those with greater means. Depending on royalties opens a channel for corruption. (“Hey, if we let Brewster expand its glacier-ride concession, we can increase our take!”) All of this thrusts Parks Canada further into the sweaty marketplace, where it most certainly does not belong. Like the fire department or the police, the national parks need to get their funding—all of it—from the Canadian tax base. We can easily afford it.
  • All the political and bureaucratic layers between the commission and the park superintendents would be stripped away. There would be no deputy minister, no assistant deputy minister, no agency head, no regional directors and so on. The park bureaucracy has become top-heavy, an unhealthy situation that wastes money, favors buck-passing and fails to keep vested interests in check. The superintendents ought to report directly to the commission. They would also be backed up by the commission if they encountered local resistance when enforcing the rules in their particular parks.

If you were a park superintendent, wouldn’t you dearly love to have this kind of boss instead of whoever it is comes into your office and says, “Gosh, Ed, it looks like we’ve been over-ruled by the regional director. Again.”

Wouldn’t it be absolutely wonderful if you could quit worrying about what the next administration in Ottawa might do to your park?

And wouldn’t it be especially wonderful if we could get all of Canada’s protected areas, including those that are provincially controlled, under this kind of enlightened management? I see no reason why the independent commission structure could not be adopted by the provinces to look after their own protected areas properly.

I know, I know. You are thinking, “This is impossible.” Well, the Soviet Union imploded. The Berlin Wall came down. Barack Obama got elected president of the United States.

Yes, we can.

*** February 2009, with minor updates to 2013

* Ben Gadd, 202 Grizzly Crescent, Canmore, AB T1W 1C1 Canada • 403-609-4449 • This essay has been adapted from a speech Ben gave to the cross-border Crown [of the Continent] Managers’ Partnership in Pincher Creek, AB, 24 Feb 2009.


4 Responses to “Saving the National Parks from Politicians”

  1. jill says:

    Thank you Ben for starting the ball rolling. Let’s have some good discussion on this.

  2. Ben Gadd says:

    Aye, Rory was certainly known to use colorful language. And as you suggest, Len, he would no doubt have applied a few of his favorite expletives to this latest proposal. Those on the receiving end would have been not only the proponent but also the upper echelons of Parks Canada for having even allowed the malodorous thing across the threshold.

    How sad it is that in JNP we haven’t had a superintendent of Rory’s stature since he retired. Not that he could have stopped what has transpired since. Townsite autonomy, the hotel-building boom in Jasper, the start of commercial rafting on the Maligne River, the construction of Icefield Centre — these all arose when the right wing ascended to power in Ottawa and quickly began selling out the national parks to the tourist industry. No lone park superintendent could have saved his park from this cabal.

    But Rory would have tried. And realizing that these deals were all cooked up over his head in Ottawa, I think Rory would have done the honorable thing and quit rather than sign the permits.

    The Rory Flanagans are long-gone from Parks Canada, replaced by the likes of George Balding, Gaby Fortin, Ron Hooper and Greg Fenton, all of them captive to Brewster, Maligne Tours, Fairmont Hotels and the ski industry.

    Still, I think Parks Canada could be freed. For that we’ll need a new crop of superintendents, each ready to put a stop to further commercialization of their parks and eager to begin repairing the damage that has been inflicted. Those superintendents would need to be backed up by a fully independent National Parks Commission. The commission would report directly to Parliament as a whole, that is, to the elected representatives of the people, NOT to a government minister who would otherwise carry on running our parks on behalf of corporate political donors.

    I’ll cast my federal vote for any party that includes an independent National Parks Commission in the party platform.

  3. Rick Searle says:

    Hi Ben,

    Intriguing proposal. While it has some merits, I truly doubt it would be possible to create an “independent” commission. In the end, they, too, must be held accountable for their decisions. We can’t suppose that these would always be in the best interest of the park or the system. So who would hold them accountable and how?

    It seems to me that the way to wrest control of the national parks system away from untrustworthy politicians is to make the politicians more accountable to the electorate, we the citizens of Canada. As I see it, this goal could be achieved if Canada were to adopt proportional representation as an electoral system and if Michael Chong’s Reform Act passed giving MPs more independence in representing their constituency and not the narrow interests of their party leader.

    I firmly believe that it is time for all of us who care about the national parks and the environment to join with social justice groups and others in the fight to regain and strengthen democracy in Canada.

  4. Ben Gadd says:

    Hey, Rick, I fully agree that protecting the parks does require a Canadian democracy that works better, in the interest of all Canadians rather than those who fund the ruling party. And proportional representation is certainly key to this.

    To answer your question about the accountability of an independent National Parks Commission, it would be directly accountable to Parliament. Any action the commission takes, or fails to take, could be reversed by a parliamentary resolution. Such a resolution could also be used to replace commissioners, from a single individual to the whole group.

    As I say in the essay, such resolutions are subject to debate. The whole country would be listening. Any resolution intended to favor some vested interest or otherwise harm the parks could easily be exposed. Given the sanctity with which we Canadians hold our parks, the resulting outcry would probably embarrass the proponents into withdrawing the resolution. Most likely, it wouldn’t even be introduced.

    And conversely, if the commission had clearly gone off the rails about something, I think a resolution to correct that situation would rather easily pass.

    I’d much prefer this kind of direct accountability to Parliament instead of the politically motivated, secretive, hidden-agenda management that Parks Canada exercises now.

    Of course, any majority government could change the enabling legislation regardless of what Canadians want. The commission could be dissolved and the agency returned to the ministerial control it suffers under now.

    Which again points out how important it is to elect progressive politicians who are responsible to the fair-minded folks they represent. Given that sort of majority government, or a progressive coalition, an independent National Parks Commission might actually be created.

    To this end, I have passed my essay along to all the federal leaders in hope that one or more of them will consider it for their party’s platform.

    Oh, dang. Somehow I seem to have missed sending it to Stephen Harper . . .


    — Ben

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