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“Unimpaired for Future Generations”?

The following article is taken from the Spring/Summer 2012 edition of Canadian Wilderness. We welcome your comments on this item!
Download the full issue here.


National parks face new pressures - Do recent decisions to allow new commercial tourism developments in our parks signal a new assault on their sanctity?

Storm clouds over Herbert Lake - Mike Le - Photofool.comThe new millennium was a time of great optimism for the future of our national parks.  After a decade-long battle against commercial development pressures in our national parks, the tide had turned towards a stronger “nature first” approach to their management.  A blue ribbon panel of experts (which included CPAWS’ representatives) had concluded that national park ecosystems were at risk across the country, and the federal government accepted a comprehensive suite of recommendations for how to reverse the decline.

In 2000, the federal government amended the Canada National Parks Act to clarify that ecological integrity was the first priority in park management, and boosted  investment in creating  new parks and  protecting and restoring park ecosystems.  Over the next decade, Parks Canada made significant progress, rolling out a science-based ecological integrity monitoring and reporting system across the country, and working to restore park ecosystem health. The agency reintroduced bison and black-footed ferrets to Grasslands National Park; fire to parks where ecosystem health depended on it;  and  made progress on restoring the Bow Valley wildlife corridor of Banff National Park.

But in  recent  years, conservationists are noticing a rise in disturbing management decisions that suggest  the trend is reversing. Our concern is that Parks Canada is moving back in time -  approving new infrastructure-dependent recreational activities and commercial developments - and shifting  priority away from protecting nature.

In February 2012, in the face of enormous public opposition, the federal government announced a decision to allow commercial tour operator Brewster Travel Canada,  owned by a US-based multi-national company called VIAD, to build a massive glass-bottomed viewing platform in Jasper National Park at a pull-off along the Icefields Parkway.  This project is similar to a controversial project that was built OUTSIDE the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and flies in the face of national park policy that limits recreational activities to those that require minimal infrastructure. The decision was made in spite of the inadequate information about its potential impact on wildlife.

Last year, Parks Canada announced that it would allow large-scale summer use at the Mount Norquay ski hill in Banff.  This plan is raising serious concern about the impact that thousands more summer visitors will have on grizzly bears and other wildlife that rely on the area as important summer habitat and  a movement corridor within  the Bow Valley.  The decision is particularly troublesome since it reversed a previous agreement between the ski hill operator and Parks Canada to allow for expanded winter use in return for giving up summer use – because of its potential impact on grizzly bears and other sensitive wildlife that inhabit the area in summer.

Most recently, Parks Canada announced its intent to amend the Riding Mountain National Park Management Plan and invite proposals from commercial operators to re-develop the long-closed Mount Agassiz Ski Area.   This would reverse the management plan’s previous commitment to remove the aging infrastructure from the bankrupt ski hill, and restore the area’s ecosystem.  The current management plan appropriately reflects the requirement to put Ecological Integrity first in park management. [ Take action now to help protect Riding Mountain National Park. ]

The Canada National Parks Act does not allow new ski areas to be developed in national parks because  downhill skiing has significant impacts on park ecosystems  that we now recognize as inappropriate in our national parks.  With most of the equipment and buildings at the Mount Agassiz hill in need of replacement, and after a decade of ecosystem regeneration at the abandoned hill, re-developing this site would essentially mean developing a new ski area.  Even the feasibility study for the project casts serious doubt on its viability, citing an inadequate market, re-development requirements and competition from other ski areas in the region.

So what’s behind this troublesome trend?  In the past few years, Parks Canada has turned its attention to engaging more Canadians in our national parks. CPAWS shares the goal of encouraging Canadians to connect with nature in order to build a culture of conservation in Location for the Brewster viewing platform - Kelly SloanCanada, but not at the risk of harming the ecological integrity of our parks! While Parks Canada is investing in projects that promote “nature-focused” activities, such as learn-to-camp programs, it is  also making a worrying shift towards  commercial, pay-for-use activities that focus on infrastructure, not nature, to attract people to parks.

The argument is that we need new attractions in our parks to appeal to more urbanized Canadians who aren’t interested in “traditional” park activities.  But there is no evidence that this is the kind of activity that Canadians want for their parks. To the contrary, the recent outcry about the Jasper “walkway” reinforces what CPAWS has always understood – that Canadians love their parks as wild places, protected for themselves and their grandchildren.  There is no evidence that they want commercial tourism operators to build new infrastructure-focused, theme park-like attractions within the parks.

CPAWS’ history of defending our parks runs deep.  Our organization was created in 1963 in response to a plea in Parliament from the minister responsible for national parks that Canadians stand up to defend them.  We successfully fought off a massive development project at Lake Louise in the early 1970s.  We rose up and successfully secured limits to commercial development in the 1990s.  And with the help of Canadians across the country, we’ll defend our parks again against the latest wave of “back to the future”.

Photo credits:
Top right - Storm clouds over Herbert Lake - Mike Le -

Bottom left - Location for the Brewster viewing platform - Kelly Sloan