Standing alone against the Pacific, 160 km off the coast of British Columbia, the islands of South Moresby take a frightful beating. High winds, heavy rains and relentless surf pound the western shores, leaving trees bent backwards and beaches scoured. Despite the elements, Haida call the remote archipelago Gwaii Haanas—“islands of wonder and beauty”—with good reason. On calm days and in protected backwaters away from the ocean’s roar, the trickle of a creek, the caw of a raven or the splash of an otter are all that intrude on the deep, soothing quiet. Multicolored sea stars light up low tide, and in season, giant black bears fish the sparkling rivers for spawning salmon. And on the moss-covered floor of the rain forest, the soft, moist, oxygen-rich air caresses skin ravaged by city life and tantalizes nostrils seared by pollution. The wildness of the place is thrilling. Its beauty is humbling. It is a spa for the spirit.

And it is supposed to stay that way. Gwaii Haanas is a national park

reserve, one of 36 crown jewels of the Canadian landscape that have been given the protection of the National Parks Act so that they will be around to thrill future generations with the wonder of Canada at its unspoiled best. Spanning 75,000 square miles of mountain ranges and grassy plains, great rivers and frozen tundra, the park system delights Canadians and lures visitors from around the globe: 25 per cent of the nearly 15 million national park visitors in 1994 were foreigners. The parks host bird-watchers and ice climbers, golfers and canoeists, picnickers and backpackers, seniors on nature tours and kids on skis. In a recent Environics poll asking 2,026 Canadians to name the most important symbols of their national identity, national parks finished a close third behind the flag and the anthem. “Our parks system,” says Jocelyne Daw, executive director of the Canadian Parks Partnership, “is the envy of the world.”

But the legislative shield of the parks act is no guarantee that paradise will be protected. Popular campsites and trails at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on Vancouver Island were so badly trampled during the late 1980s that park managers had to implement quota and reservation systems. At Banff, commercial development in the country’s oldest and most visited national park has infringed on important wildlife habitat.

Thanks to a 1992 court decision, the clear-cut logging that was tearing apart northern Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park was halted, but biologists there have another problem to solve—a brucellosis-infected bison herd. And in Quebec, the long-awaited beluga whale sanctuary at the confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence rivers is bogged down in negotiations between Ottawa and the province’s separatist government. “There is no way in the current political environment that I can see another national park being established in Quebec,” says Arlin Hackman, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Endangered Spaces Campaign. “There may be joint QuebecCanada protected areas, but not with the National Parks Act as sole legal authority. That will not fly.”

Beyond those issues is an even greater challenge— completing the park system itself. Parks Canada is

National parks, popular but a little frayed, are stirring symbols of Canada's identity

committed to gathering samples of each of the country’s 39 defined natural regions within park boundaries; the system now embraces only 23. The process of getting the other 16 ecologically and geographically defined regions into the fold has been slow, partly because of interminable intergovemment negotiations, unresolved land claims and a shortage of cash. Then, there are unforeseen difficulties. The Mealy Mountains park proposal in Labrador, for instance, straddles land that is geologically similar to Voisey Bay, site of a recently discovered nickel deposit; as a result, Parks Canada officials are concerned that it may become more difficult to convince companies with staked interests within the proposed boundaries to sign away their mineral rights.

Still, park officials are optimistic that the system will be completed by the year 2000, a deadline imposed by the federal government in 1990. “There’s a fairly positive climate among the provinces and native groups with whom we are dealing,” says Michael Porter, acting director general of national parks. “You never know what will happen with the various provincial elections, but so far, so good.”

It was the discovery of mineral hot springs that first drew attention to Banff. Canadian Pacific Railway employees uncovered the springs in the early 1880s, but their application to purchase the property was rejected by the federal government. Instead, in 1885, Ottawa created a 10-square-mile reserve around the site, saying the springs “promise to be of great sanitary advantage to the public.” Ottawa added Yoho and Glacier parks the next year, and the national parks system was bom.

Today, Banff symbolizes the major debate over national parks: should they be preserved in their pristine wilderness state, or made more accessible for recreation and tourism? Unquestionably, Banff possesses some of the world’s most dramatic wilderness, but it also bears the imprint of its birth, at a time when parks were “attractions,” not protected wildernesses. The once-rustic townsite now resounds with international chatter—French, Japanese and German mixing with a wide range of English accents. With breathtaking snow-capped mountains towering above and the Bow River winding alongside, Banff Avenue is a string of hotels and innumerable curio shops, hair salons and boutiques selling $600 handbags—not to mention restau-

rants offering everything from fast food to sushi.

And that is exactly how many people like it: all the comforts of home—all the commercialism of a resort—in the greatest of outdoors. Betty Jo and Richard Hamed, a retired couple visiting from Decatur, 111., welcomed the opportunity to stock up their motor home. “We stopped to do our shopping and laundry,” says Betty Jo. “It’s great to have all the facilities.” But Brian Borgartz, visiting from Essex, England, is saddened by the development. Borgartz, 60, first visited Banff 30 years ago and recently brought his wife to see it, too. The town, he says, is unrecognizable—shop after shop selling the same souvenirs. “I’m a bit disappointed, I suppose, really,” he says. “But then, nothing stays the same, does it?”

Those conflicting sentiments mimic the debate that rages in Banff. Although park defenders claim that Banff is too often the focus of criticism, and is not given credit for its vast and relatively unblemished backcountry, it is out of step with the rest of the system. The numbers help explain why: last year, there were 4.6 million visits to Banff, more than three million more than Jasper National Park, its neighbor to the north. The park’s commercial tourism infrastructure, meanwhile, covers only three per cent of the park’s territory. Sunshine Village ski resort, one of three ski resorts in Banff, is carving new runs into Goat’s Eye Mountain and plans to expand its hotel and park facilities. “Basically, the parks were established for the people of Canada to use and enjoy,” says Ralph Scurfield, Sunshine’s president.

Not so, environmentalists say: Parks Canada’s mandate is to preserve the ecological integrity of its member parks. “Banff is the most highly developed national park in North America,” says Harvey Locke,

a Calgary lawyer and president of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “It is an esthetic mess, an eyesore, and it’s all because of the commercial development.” Locke and others contend that shopping malls, conference centres and postcards of Daffy Duck riding an elk are not what Canadians expect from a national park. Biologists also note that the increased density of the townsite and traffic on the TransCanada Highway have significantly disrupted prime winter habitat for the park’s wildlife—particularly elk, deer, wolves and cougars.

Responding to such concerns, Canadian Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy last year initiated the Banff Bow Valley Study and placed a moratorium on development in the park. The moratorium, however, does not affect the town itself, which recently approved a new 300-unit housing development and an expansion to the Banff Centre.

Park managers are used to the development debate, which, according to Banff superintendent Charlie Zinkan, is as old as the park itself. “But increasingly,” he says, “we are concerned that it has become polarized, confrontational and not constructive.” For now, all sides are hoping that the Bow Valley study will offer a workable compromise, if not a return to the pristine past. ‘You cannot roll back history,” says Porter. “The townsite is not going away.”

The heyday of park-building came between 1968 and 1974, when, under the then-minister of Indian affairs and northern development, Jean Chrétien, Parks Canada established nine new parks.

Among them are some of the system’s biggest stars—Pacific Rim,

Nahanni in the Northwest Territories, Kluane in the Yukon, La Mauricie in Quebec and Gros Mome in Newfoundland. Since then, critics say, progress towards completing the park system has been slow, held up in part by Parks Canada’s bureaucracy. “It makes you wonder how so many people can do so little,” says Paul George, founding director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

Park officials say that is not true, that only 10 per cent of the fulltime staff of about 4,000 works out of the Hull, Que., headquarters.

And they say that park-building, no easy task at the best of times, is made more difficult in a climate of budget and staff reductions.

Several existing parks, such as Grasslands in Saskatchewan and Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, are incomplete because, even when there was more money available, Parks Canada was unable to acquire all the privately held land within park boundaries. At Kouchibouguac in New Brunswick, one owner still refuses to sell his

property. “At the moment,” Porter says, “we do little more than stare at each other over the fence.”

Parks Canada is currently working to deadlines set in the so-called Green Plan, announced by the Conservative government in 1990. Although the Green Plan is now abandoned, the current Liberal government has endorsed the goal to create five new parks by the end of 1995 and have agreements on the remaining 14 unrepresented natural areas signed by the year 2000. Since the deadlines were set, Parks Canada has established Aulavik National Park on Banks Island, N.W.T., and Vuntut National Park in northern Yukon, and it has set aside land for a park on north Baffin Island. Porter says that the agency will try to meet its deadline for two more new parks by the end of this year, but he is not overly optimistic. The likeliest candidates are near Churchill, Man., and one of several sites in the Northwest Territories. “The doors are starting to open on some of these proposals,” he says, “but the negotiations are always delicate.” The longer the process takes, however, the more difficult it will become. One of the 16 remaining areas to be included is British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia lowlands. Because it is highly developed and pricey real estate, any sizable piece of land there will be enormously expensive to buy and return to its natural state. ‘We would dearly love to get into some areas of the North, but to some extent, they can wait,” says Porter. We have j to concentrate on the proposals in the South j

because there is more pressure on them.” Leading the push for parks have been nongovernmental organizations. Among other things, the Canadian chapter of the World

‘The urgency is that wilderness areas

lisappearing in Canada’

Wildlife Fund has provided scientific research to further Parks Canada’s mandate. The Nature Conservancy of Canada has contributed money to acquire private lands. The Canadian Parks Partnership funds projects that the parks themselves cannot afford. The list goes on. “The time when we called upon the almighty government to do it single-handedly is gone,” says the World Wildlife Fund’s Hackman. “We face a combination of opportunity and urgency—the urgency is that wilderness areas are disappearing quickly in many parts of Canada.”

The future of national parks is now on display at Pacific Rim. The glorious band of beaches and forest along the west coast of Vancouver Island—much of it accessible by car—is a must for any tourist. But that popularity has strained the park’s facilities. In recent years, the West Coast Trail, which traces 77 km of the rugged coastline between Bamfield and Port Renfrew, was overrun by hikers, causing overcrowding and environmental destruction. The same was true at campsites on the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound, and at the main Long Beach campsite, which on its own attracts 400,000 visitors a year.

In response to sevento eight-per-cent increases in visitor counts at Long Beach in each of the past seven years, the park initiated user fees (currently $20 a night for a drive-in campsite) in 1994 to bolster its declining budget and to offset the cost of maintaining trails and campgrounds. The reservation system and user fees for the West Coast Trail— $25 to make a reservation, $60 to use the trail—were designed to ease pressure on the backcountry. Now, campers and hikers can book their trips at Pacific Rim through an 800 telephone service. The park limits the number of hikers starting out on the West Coast Trail to 52 each day. Bill McIntyre, the park’s community relations chief, says visitors understand that protecting the park comes first. “We cannot compromise on our protection mandate—that has to be our bottom line,” says McIntyre. “We feel it’s necessary to protect our resource before we provide access to it.”

For most Canadians, national parks have less to do with public policy than with personal experience. According to a 1993 Angus Reid poll, one-third of all Canadians said their experience in national parks had positively shaped their appreciation of the environment. Parks Canada’s Porter says he began to fully understand the value of parks when, while working in Kouchibouguac, he watched an excited group of kids see their first fox. “I got a real appreciation for what others see,” Porter says, “and I learned that parks are not just about scenery.”

The excitement extends into adulthood. At Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, for instance, there is a favored fishing spot that anglers like to keep secret. Bypassed by the majority of park visitors, who usually stay close to the spectacular Cabot Trail, the wild and dramatic Cheticamp River is prized by hard-core fishermen. And as they always do during the June salmon run, anglers gathered recently at first light to cast their flies hopefully into the dark, swirling pools. Around them, yellow swallowtail butterflies, their wings aglow in the warming sun, fluttered against the backdrop of dark-green forest. The day’s first catch went to Susan Balch, a 38-year-old quilter, who hooked a feisty 10-pounder. Local regulations require that anglers release any fish they catch, but that did not bother Balch. She has fished the Cheticamp for 13 years, and part of what makes the experience worthwhile year after year is that there are still fish to catch. “Places like this,” she says after releasing her silvery prize, “are a treasure.” And with any luck, they will stay that way.