RECREATION

A growing threat to Canada’s parks

ANDREW NIKIFORUK September 16 1985
RECREATION

A growing threat to Canada’s parks

ANDREW NIKIFORUK September 16 1985

A growing threat to Canada’s parks

RECREATION

Albertans honky tonk,”and call it each “high-country year nearly eight million tourists walk its neon-lit streets. Like mountain mayflies they flit in and out of Mexican restaurants, late-night discos and souvenir

shops that sell porcelain figurines of classical musicians and T-shirts that read “I love Canada” in Japanese. And as the town’s population reaches its peak in midsummer, its overextended treatment plant sometimes has to discharge raw sewage into the Bow River. The town of Banff, in the middle of a 2,564-square-mile park, is the cradle of the world’s largest national park system. But despite its famous Rocky Mountain vistas, it has become a sharp disappointment to many visitors. Indeed, for many conservationists Banff has become a symbol of how Canada’s parks should not be developed. Said Michael Mclvor, a conservationist and 20-year Banff resident: “The style and atmosphere of Banff is an impediment to a natural park experience. It places barriers in people’s search for nature.”

The tension between conservationists and developers is particularly obvious in Banff, and it is at the centre of a controversy that threatens to overshadow this summer’s celebration of the 100th birthday of the nation’s park systems. The problem arises partly from Parks Canada’s dual mandate to preserve 53,957 square miles of parkland and also accommodate an army of visitors that has grown to nearly 25 million in 1985 from 100,000 in 1915. And the divided responsibility has been a problem for the parks system ever since Sir John A. Macdonald set aside the 10-square-mile Banff Hot Springs in 1885 to encourage tourists to use the Canadian Pacific Railway and, as he said, to “recoup the Treasury.” Now, Parks Canada employs 5,000 people, spends $312 million annually and manages 31 parks.

Many conservationists currently are demanding visitor restrictions at parks, including Banff, following similar restrictions instituted at some U.S. parks earlier this year. But the federal government and tourist operators are calling for more facilities to accommodate the increasing number of tourists. Last week both sides debated the future of the nation’s parks when 350 academics, conservationists, businessmen and poli-

ticians gathered in Banff for the Canadian Assembly on National Parks and Protected Areas. Sponsored by Parks Canada, the meeting closed a summer full of planned festivities—and unscheduled controversies.

The debate became especially heated when Environment Minister Suzanne Blais-Grenier said in June that she

could not rule out logging and mining in national parks—activities that have been banned since 1930. The remark led to nationwide calls from angry environmentalists for her resignation and generated thousands of protest letters to Parks Canada. When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney demoted Blais-Grenier to minister of state for transport in last month’s cabinet shuffle, many Parks Canada employees expressed relief and gratitude.

Her successor, former tourism minister and Tory environment critic Thomas McMillan, swiftly rejected the possibility of opening the parks to logging. But in

his previous portfolio McMillan had called for aggressive promotion of tourism in the parks, and conservationists are concerned that the government is not committed to preserving and expanding the national parks for future generations. Said Kevin McNamee, executive director of the Torontobased National and Provincial Parks Association: “Our main concern rests with the erosion of national park values from the Tories’ promotion of largescale tourism, the leasing of park services to private entrepreneurs and the idea that parks can be all things to all people.”

In Canada 90 per cent of the services provided in parks, such as raft tours and skiing, are already operated by private entrepreneurs. And to meet budget constraints in the western region (a cut of $6 million this year), Ste-

phen Kun, director of Parks Canada’s western region, plans to turn over the operation of the hot springs at Banff and Radium, B.C., and 39 campgrounds to private businesses. Said Kun: “More visitors have contact with private entrepreneurs than Parks Canada staff. Bus companies are doing a first-rate job in park interpretation.”

Conservationists are particularly worried about a master development plan for the four mountain parks (Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho) which is now awaiting McMillan’s approval. Despite a threeyear public consultation process during which half the participants opposed further development, conservationists say that Parks Canada is recommending that visitor accommodations be doubled in Banff and Jasper townsites, to a combined total of 30,000 units. They argue that this would damage the parks and diminish the quality of a visitor’s wilderness experience in a region where there are frequently more campers than campsites.

Parks officials acknowledge that the mountain parks contain several “crisis areas” where car-bound tourists are threatening both land and wildlife. Said Kun: “Crowds beget crowds. People like to go where they can watch people and be watched. Where facilities are built

and used there is a tendency for a snowball effect.” Still, Kun maintains such innovations as gondola lifts and paved trails can lessen the impact of heavy use.

McMillan’s proposals last year to create what he calls “tourist magnets” within the mountain parks received strong support from local tourist operators. They already earn $2 billion from mountain parks visitors in Alberta alone, and they say that there are not enough attractions to keep the industry vibrant. Jasper businessman and past president of the Tourism Industry Association of Alberta Walter Urquhart said that to accommodate an older and less adventurous public, the mountain parks should double attendance, to 20 million. He explained that that could be accomplished by building more swimming pools, golf courses and campgrounds. Said Urquhart: “I am not looking at wild, crazy ideas like a Disneyland in the hinterlands, but at opportunités to develop and extend services properly.” For their part, most conservationists want all further tourist development to take place in areas just outside the parks. Said Mclvor: “We are not opposed to tourism, but we feel it does not all have to happen in Banff and other park sites.” They also want Parks Canada to devote more money and time to educating people about the nature of the parks

and the meaning of wilderness preserves—a job that even department officials acknowledge they neglect.

To support their arguments, many environmentalists point to the recent initiatives of the U.S. National Parks Service. Its combative new director, William Penn Mott Jr., shut the gates of such major U.S. parks as Yellowstone and Yosemite during busy vacation periods this summer to reduce the numbers of visitors who use the U.S. parks yearly. Declared Mott: “When you have so many people in Yosemite that the roads look like the Golden Gate Bridge at rush hour and there is more smoke than in the heart of the city, that is not what people are coming for.”

Conservationists also advocate the creation of more wilderness havens, partly to ease the pressure on existing parks. Indeed, Parks Canada has a mandate to create a park in each of the country’s 48 distinct natural regions, but the system is now only 40-per-cent complete. Park officials say that the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake and several Atlantic and Arctic marine parks have all been pinpointed as potential new sites. Still, creating a new park is a costly process, averaging eight years and filled with hazards. Declared Robert Scace of the

Canadian Assembly on National Parks: “You cannot just draw a line around a place and call it a park.”

That became apparent during the creation of Kouchibouguac Park on the east coast of New Brunswick in the late 1960s. Using tactics that were later condemned as “inhuman” by a joint federal-provincial inquiry, Parks Canada evicted 1,200 Acadians from land that the government had expropriated. And when Parks Canada proposed a marine park in Passamaquoddy Bay near the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick last year, 5,000 independent fishermen immediately formed the Citizens League Against the Marine Park. The organization eventually forced the abandonment of the plan. Said Janice Brown, director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick: “I think there is an understanding

now that people who live off the land should not be uprooted when a park is created.”

Most conservationists predict that Canada’s parks will play an increasingly critical role as ecological reservoirs for endangered species and benchmark areas where environmental changes can be carefully monitored. And Kun acknowledges that those goals will “become a compelling argument to do the best possible job of ensuring the highest level of preservation” in the years to come. But as Parks Canada has learned in the first century of its existence, it is far easier to create a park than it is to keep it inviolate.

ANDREW NIKIFORUK

in Edmonton

with

BRUCE WALLACE

in Montreal and

HILARY MACKENZIE

in Ottawa