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A New Future for Parks

  • Published on Oct 01 2008 |
  • This article is tagged as: parks

This article appeared in the Fall, 2008 issue of Canadian Wilderness.

Sassafrass trees, skinks, fox snakes, and even prickly pear cactus—Point Pelee National Park, Canada’s southernmost point is a hotspot of biodiversity.  Established in 1918 at the urging of birders and hunters, this special place is the only national park protecting Canada’s lush Carolinian region.
Point Pelee acts as a funnel for migrating birds and butterflies, making it a must-see for naturalists thoughout North America.  Over 400,000 nature lovers flock to Pelee each year for the opportunity to add rare birds to their life lists.

But since its inception, biodiversity in the park has plummeted, alarming Parks Canada scientists.  A 2000 study by the agency found that about 20 species of reptiles and amphibians have been lost from the park in the last 100 years. Although bullfrogs were numerous until the mid-nineties, in just a few years, they’ve disappeared.

How could this happen in a national park?  High visitor rates and past pesticide use is part of the problem, but the biggest culprit is the park’s tiny size.  At only 20 square kilometres, Pelee is one of Canada’s smallest national parks. Agricultural land to the north and Lake Erie on the south isolate Pelee from other protected areas.  The park just doesn’t protect enough habitat to support the full complement of species that once lived there.

Pelee is not the only park where we are losing species. There are an impressive-sounding 3,500 protected areas in Canada.  But on a map, they appear as tiny dotted islands in an archipelago.  Almost 3,000 of our protected areas are less than 100 km2 in size—smaller than the city of Lethbridge, Alberta.

A University of California at San Diego study by William Newmark presents some alarming conclusions.  Newmark looked at mammal populations over time in large parks across Western North America.  The only parks that successfully protected the full range of mammal species present when they were established were Canada’s Yoho, Kootenay, Banff and Jasper—an interconnected assemblage covering more than 20,000 square kilometres in the Canadian Rockies.  Even Yellowstone National Park, at roughly 9,000km2 wasn’t big enough to prevent the extirpation of the grey wolf, although the species has since been reintroduced.

It’s useful to think of parks like islands formed by rising sea levels, writes Newmark.  Newly cut off from surrounding habitat, the island would have more species on it than its size could support, and we’d expect some to die off over time.  If we create a park without ensuring connections to surrounding habitat, we’re in essence creating an island, and stranding the species on it at sea.  The smaller the island, the higher the rate of extinction.

Time to think “big”

Parks are vital to the bigger conservation picture. Certainly, timeless places like Nahanni’s Virginia falls, and endangered species like the Banff Springs snail might have disappeared if not for National Park intervention.  But if parks are to mean ecosystem protection, we need to think bigger than just protecting a particular species, in a particular place, at a particular point in time.

Conservation biologists now suggest four basic objectives that we need to meet if we are to protect healthy ecosystems in the long term.  First, we need to protect examples of all our native ecosystem types. Second, we need to ensure that healthy populations of all native species are protected throughout their range.  Third, we need to maintain processes like reproduction, nutrient cycles, water cycles and wildfire that link together elements of the natural world into functional ecosystems. And finally, we need to make sure that ecosystems are resilient—that they are able to stay healthy in the face of growing pressures like climate change. To achieve these goals will require a new, more ambitious approach.

How much is enough?

From amphibians to wolves, species vary in the amount of land they need to thrive.  Studies find that many larger animals need much more protected habitat than most of our protected areas currently provide.   How much is enough? The most widely cited target for protected areas for many years was 12% of the entire planet’s land base, recommended by the Brundtland Commission in 1987.  At the time, only 4% of the world’s land was protected. Although this global target wasn’t science-based, it was adopted by many political jurisdictions and conservation organizations in Canada and around the world.

Throughout the 1990s, the 12% target motivated progress on establishing new protected areas in Canada through major campaigns like Endangered Spaces, led by WWF Canada and CPAWS. Today, we know that protecting 12% is clearly not ambitious enough to safeguard wilderness ecosystems.  In fact, according to conservation biologist Fiona Schmiegelow, scientists predict that 50% of all species could go extinct if conservation lands are restricted to this level. The 12% goal has become a ceiling that we need to break through.

In Canada, meanwhile, industrial development is ramping up at a pace that we’ve never before seen.  Particularly in the north, this growth is linked to exploding global demand for resources. Protecting large portions of our public lands and waters is more imperative than ever.  Canada is the steward of 20% of the world’s remaining wilderness—a vital store of fresh water and carbon that if released, would quicken the pace of global warming.

 At least half of our land base

No one study exists that identifies a single target for protected areas that can be applied everywhere.  But there are strong indications that to protect healthy functioning ecosystems for the long term at least half of our land base needs to be protected.

In 2007, 1500 scientists from more than 50 countries around the world signed a letter to all provincial, territorial and federal governments in Canada.  They called on governments to protect Canada’s boreal forest, and recommended that at least half be set aside in a network of protected areas, while the rest was managed using leading-edge sustainable development practices. This same principle is embedded in the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, an agreement developed by leading resource companies, First Nations and conservation organizations including CPAWS, and now endorsed by over 176 companies, First Nations, conservation groups and other institutions.

Much of Canada’s wilderness—including the Boreal forest—is home to Aboriginal peoples.  Many strongly support its protection. More than ninety per cent of our remaining wilderness landscapes and all of our oceans and great freshwater lakes are publicly owned. In southern Canada, a surprising amount of greenspace still links parks like Algonquin in Ontario to New York’s Adirondacks and the northern Appalachians.

CPAWS is integrating this new scientific thinking into our work.  Establishing bigger parks is one piece of the puzzle. We are also moving from our earlier approach of securing protected areas site by site to protecting whole networks of lands and waters.  With input from communities, governments, industry and First Nations, we believe that land use plans (and their equivalent in the ocean environment) are key to creating a huge network of protected areas and sustainable management practices, particularly in the relatively intact landscapes of northern Canada.

Can we succeed?

We’re seeing more encouraging signs that decision-makers now grasp the importance of large-scale wilderness conservation.  In the past 18 months, the federal government, working in collaboration with First Nations, conservation groups and the Government of the Northwest Territories, committed to protect more than 100,000km2 of intact Boreal ecosystems.  We have also seen some long-awaited first steps on marine protection, with the 2007 federal announcement of marine protected areas in Lake Superior and the Pacific’s Bowie Seamount, and three new National Wildlife Areas to protect bowhead whales and seabird colonies in Nunavut.  Just this past summer, the Province of Ontario  committed to protecting more than half of its northern Boreal, the largest conservation announcement by a Canadian government in the nation’s history.

Protecting Pelee in a National Park was a forward-thinking decision.  90 years later, we still have a Carolinian forest on Canada’s southernmost point, when most of the original forest has been lost to development.  Thanks to parks, we still have a wilderness park in Ontario’s Quetico, an undammed Virginia Falls in Nahanni, and the world’s last fully-functioning mountain ecosystem in Banff, Yoho, Jasper and Kootenay Parks.  Parks have always protected the places and values important to us.  CPAWS is still committed to creating new parks.  Now the connections between those special places have become just as important. As Canadians’ understanding of the need to “think big” increases, our chances of succeeding in protecting our irreplaceable wilderness will too. ♦

Alison Woodley is the manager of CPAWS’ National Protected Areas Program. This article is based on a presentation about the case for protecting Canada’s “Big Wild” at the Canadian Science Writers Association annual conference in June 2008.

Sue Novotny is CPAWS' Communications Officer