Frontlines

A place to rest

Thomas Hopkins July 16 1979
Frontlines

A place to rest

Thomas Hopkins July 16 1979

A place to rest

Frontlines

CLOSEUP

Thomas Hopkins

“What is a park? ” asked a puzzled Inuit elder of an eager civil servant during recent hearings into five proposed northern parks. Scratching his head, the civil servant could only come up with an approximation, the Inuktitut word minnguirsirvik, but it pleased the elder. The word translates as “a resting place. ”

It was Dan and Judy Blasutti’s first trip to the mountain parks and the Torontonians wanted a memento of the quiet they had discovered, the good fishing and the scenery. Dan knew he had found it when his eyes fell on a magnificent ten-gallon hat in the village of Banff in Alberta’s Banff National Park. Tugging it low over one eye, he asked two women Banffites what they thought. The response was a study in icy snootiness. Rolling their eyes to the heavens, they turned their backs and grumbled that they could hardly wait until the tourists left. It was a reaction that would draw amens in hundreds of resort towns across the country as the crush of summer visitors and traffic descends on them. But the

difference in this case is a crucial one. This town is in the middle of a national park and, according to many environmentalists, when the tourists leave Banff so too should the two women, leaving Banff and the Rocky Mountain parks to the soaring, snow-topped wilderness that drew the Blasuttis there in the first place.

In a small way, the incident illustrates the central problem of the vast Canadian park system: the pressure of people versus wilderness. It’s growing so acute that some people who care about parks are describing them in several areas as being under siege.

Parks have become victims of their own success:

• Point Pelee National Park in southern Ontario has been forced to ban cars from most of its acreage for fear the park’s fragile ecology will be damaged by overuse.

• Last Victoria Day weekend, with many Rocky Mountain campgrounds still buried in snow, the Trans-Canada Highway was locked in a traffic jam that caused fuming park visitors to encounter what one called “the longest lineup I’ve ever seen.” Traffic took 20 minutes to travel five miles as 86,650

people (up 4,000 from last year) poured through the Banff park gates. Park officials predict three-hour lineups this year.

• Vandalism cost the New Brunswick provincial parks system $100,000 last year. Authorities fear much of it is alcohol-related and point to the June sei-

zure of 73 bottles of beer, 48 cans of beer, a 40-ounce bottle of whisky and another of rum from one car in Mactaquac Provincial Park near Fredericton. • Negotiations for the creation of five

northern wilderness parks are being stalled by opposition from the Northwest Territories Territorial Council which refuses to support primitive parks “based on the policy that puts preservation first and the use and enjoyment of people second.”

The problem may seem abstract in light of hefty statistics such as the

50.000 square miles of national parks (in total area, as big as England) and

48.000 square miles of provincial parks. But it becomes more dramatic when it is demonstrated that fully 70 per cent of national parks acreage takes in the tundra and wild rivers north of 55 degrees, where a 10-day Spartan jaunt can cost more than $2,000. With five more northern parks being planned, that percentage will increase. In a similar and controversial move, U.S. President Jimmy Carter set aside 56 million acres of Alaska wilderness last December, effectively doubling the American national park system.

Although the vast majority of users find what they’re looking for in parks, increasingly, lineups, litter and lack of accommodations have crowded in on park users, especially in southern provincial parks. Generally they’re closer to urban centres and frequented by

young locals rather than tourists. Increasingly, they’re victims of park-gate traffic jams, rowdyism and vandalism. In 1960 there were 4.9 million visitors to our national parks. In 1978 there were 19.3 million. The rugged valleys of Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland had a 75-per-cent increase in visitors last year alone and the number of visitors to Pacific Rim on the wild western beaches of Vancouver Island is up to 650,000 from 82,000 in 1972. At Banff hotels, it’s wall-to-wall “ no vacancy” signs twinkling by noon. National park attendance is increasing by about one million a year and it’s a situation that

pleases no one, neither would-be park developers, who see a demand for more facilities but have been blocked by various park services, nor park users nor environmentalists.

The environmentalists are the wilderness politicians. Articulate, passionate and often strident, they were spawned in the late 1960s in response to specific park development proposals that would have diminished the wilderness potential. Nurtured in groups such as the Sierra Club, the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), Manitoba’s Coalition for Leisure, the Environment and Resources Inc. (CLEAR) and the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada, they wax and wane with the headlines. Accused by some of being too militant and loud, they counter with militant spokesmen such as Dick Pharis of the energetic AWA who says, “They’ll say we weren’t loud enough when the wilderness is all gone.”

Ranged against them are what the environmentalists see as petit-bourgeois, conservative provincial govern-

ments determined to sell out parks to the gun lobby, the profit motive and park developers. The park developers are given to blue jeans, spring-skiing tans and a familiarity with the rhetoric of environmentalism. They see a demand for more ski lifts, motels and gift shops from urban Canadian park visitors but say they’re frustrated by vacillating government bureaucrats. The environmentalists, they charge, are elitists who would ignore the middle-aged couple from Bathurst and bully bureaucrats with a blizzard of briefs.

Two men who epitomize the split are Dick Pharis of AWA and Rodney Touche,

high-profile gladiators in the world of park politics.

Touche, 50, is an urbane Englishman with thinning blonde hair and sharp features, a former journalist and investment analyst. He gave that up to go to Lake Louise in Banff Park to manage the village’s ski lift and is now president of Village Lake Louise Ltd. In an animated blend of mock-horror and resignation he will tell for perhaps the 1,000th time the harrowing story of his attempts to expand Lake Louise in the looming shadow of Mount Temple’s north face with a “village” of condominiums and new ski lifts. Bouncing around the mud and blasted trees of a ski hill in the summer, mothering a sputtering Landrover, he shouts that there is a lot of land to go around, with or without a Lake Louise development. “Besides, it’s the government who are the promoters. I don’t blame myself for creating people pressures.” Is there an upper limit then,

on how many people the mountain parks can handle? Squinting into a bright June sun he says: “The mountain parks contain 8,000 square miles, the same as Wales. If it’s well done, we can afford the population of Wales.

The thought of three million people invading the mountain parks is the stuff of nightmares to outspoken Alberta Wilderness Association President Dick Pharis. Pale and balding, padding about his cluttered University of Alberta office in Hush Puppies, he rails against Banff and the “recreation industry who just want to get rich.” The anger is palpable. His solution to Banff is simple and direct: “We should just make it the dullest place in the world.” He dismisses Touche’s plans for Lake Louise as an attempt to expand the town with “the honky-tonk crap” of a Vail or Aspen. “Hell, the evening entertainment in a national park should be nature slide talks, not discos.” With a deft ability to render the sometimes woolly ideas of dedicated environmental amateurs clearly, he concludes, “profit has no place in parks.”

Wedged in the middle of this leafy Strum and Drang is the strained smile and the watery eyes of the park bureaucrat, particularly the Parks Canada bureaucrat. A feisty supporter and partner of park developers between the Second World War and the mid-1960s, Parks Canada put the blinders on in the late 1960s. Now the issuing of a national parks planning policy in late May indicates a solidifying of purpose, and the purpose isn’t development. According to Parks Canada spokesman Jim Shearon, “It’s a confirmation of the importance of the preservation role. The theme of heritage preservation and protection now permeates everything we do.” It is a policy close to the heart of former Indian and northern affairs minister Hugh Faulkner and it remains to be seen whether it will be implemented by new boy, John Fraser, in a revamped ministry (see box). It is this conflict of masters and priorities that has muddied the initiatives of Parks Canada and aided the efforts of environmentalists who often subscribe to the theory, if you can’t stop it stall it. “The whole process has become so paralytic that nothing gets done,” says parks consultant Jim Thorsell.

The roots of the punch-up go back to 1885 when Sir John A. Macdonald announced the first 10-square-mile national park around the hot springs of Banff. The appearance of the internal combustion engine changed the patrician air of early parks users, democratized the system and is considered the main villain in today’s people pressures.

The problem, as ever, is most dramatically seen on Banff Avenue, where a tanned young man was observed recently in a T-shirt which sported a scene of a backpacker happily firing a bazooka at a lumbering mobile trailer.

Cliff White, veteran of years of parks wars and owner of the Sunshine Village Ski Resort in Banff National Park, dismisses this sort of attitude. “If you took all the people out of the Winnebagos and made them walk the trails, the system would still be overloaded. The problem is people.” Along with several others, however, he believes that a looming gasoline shortage may fundamentally alter the patterns of park use in the coming years. Karen Johnson, chairman of the Manitoba environmentalists’ coalition, CLEAR, agrees. “The gas crunch is the best hope environmentalists have right now.” This is borne out by a brutal plummeting in sales of recreational vehicles in the U.S. and steady -to-slightly-down purchases in Canada. Other recommendations from a medicine chest full of prescriptions include advance booking, quotas on users and the development of more purely recreational parks (such as Alberta’s $40-million Kananaskis) that are close to urban centres to take the pressure off wilderness parks. Decentralization of service facilities into smaller, environmentally compatible depots is seen as an alternative to more Banff's. “What’s wrong with the old log cabin?”asks one conservationist. More drastic suggestions call for variations of the Yosemite, California, formula. Like many of the 39 U.S. national parks, Yosemite was suffering from overpopularity. In a series

of recent moves, the U.S. Park Service has banned cars from heavily used areas and substituted buses. It is also in the process of dismantling most swimming pools, tennis courts, gift shops and car rental offices. Unfortunately the proposed creation of vast northern parks will do little to ease the pressure in Canada since they will be of use only for future generations, and continue to be the preserve of privileged southerners. “Why not a Banff Springs hotel in Nahanni?” asks frustrated western Arctic MP Dave Nickerson. (The sprawling Nahanni park received a total of 297 visitors in 1978: Auyuittuq Park on Baffin Island received 617.)

“We’ve got problems,” cautioned the gas jockey at Vermilion Crossing in Kootenay National Park, southwest of Banff, “but don’t forget the good things.” The good things had not escaped John Morrisey, an Edmonton doctor in a campground below Kicking Horse Pass in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park. As his children, Brian, 4, and Colleen, 2, emerged blinking from their mini-motor home, the early morning light sliced the top of Mount Stephen above them. Aprons and small towels hung from the trees around the trailer. “Without this,” he gestured toward the motor home, “we wouldn’t be here. Small children are no good in a motel and you can’t backpack 10 dozen Pampers.” As for Glen and Marilyn Scase, framed in the spray of mighty 1,200-foot Takakkaw Falls in Yoho Park, they had come from Windsor, On-

tario, for the mountains, and to see Canada first. “There seems to be lots of room for everybody.”

NPPAC spokesman George Hunter calls that just “ostrich thinking.” With park visitors increasing five to six per cent annually, the concerns of conservationists are imperative: to relax vigilance would be a disaster.

But, in the meantime, Canada’s parks are there for every Canadian who chooses to use them. For most they are the sole connection to the outdoors, the bush, the land, the engine that drives the Canadian imagination. Their variety is kaleidoscopic and profound. Just ask the mildly agoraphobic survivors of the Tokyo rush hour who clog Banff Avenue. Even in high season, the back country remains largely untrampled and it is possible to walk or canoe for days,accepting the small gifts of a freakish dusting of snow on a high alpine meadow or the wonderful luxury of a cut trail through a pale stand of aspen. For families with children, the parks become a controlled leafy playpen with hot showers to wash away the dripped ice cream. For others it’s a game of volleyball over a late-model Chevy or four generations of a Mediterranean family who have moved their dining room to a Toronto Island hillock. Even the low hum of trailers, plugged umbilically into water and electricity, can be soothing under the silver wash of a full moon. Canadian parks are special places, and despite elbow-close neighbors on increasingly frequent occasions, they can supply most things for most people. Quiet on the eyes, soft on the ears. A place to rest.