2013 Spring Gathering: Looking Back and Looking Ahead: Nurturing our National Nature

Nurturing our national nature in Canada’s National Parks, a lecture report by Mary Robinson

At the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 25th anniversary Spring Gathering an inspirational presentation “Looking Back and Looking Ahead: Nurturing Our National Nature” was presented by Éric Hébert-Daly, National Executive Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). This year CPAWS celebrates 50 years of its collaborative approach to conservation. By keeping in touch with 13 chapters active locally across Canada they see national tendencies. They have helped protect over half a million square kilometres of wilderness by helping government, industry and First Nations. Approximately 90% of Canada’s lands and waters are public, but only 10% is protected; CPAWS’ long-term goal is to increase this to 50%.

In his presentation, Hebert-Daly talked in depth about three key shifts in the approach to conservation in Canada’s National Parks in the last 25 years. These three key shifts are: a shift in focus to ecological integrity instead of visitor experience, a shift from unilateralism to multilateralism in planning and decision making, and a shift from islands to networks with respect to interconnection and geography of protected areas.

Challenges to keeping a focus on ecological integrity

In discussing the first shift, Mr. Hébert-Daly spoke about Canada’s first national park, Banff National Park, created 127 years ago. When the railway was being built into the west, workers discovered the wonderful hot springs at Banff. When the government heard about this natural wonder they realized it could be a great attraction for visitors to Canada, especially Europeans interested in the ‘wild’ nature of Canada. At that time, wilderness with its untouched natural beauty represented the countries ‘soul’ and could be used to show-case Canada. This was the primary reason the National Park program began.

In time, more parks were created and activities such as camping, hiking and canoeing became synonymous with Canada’s parks. People loved them and came from all over the world. Infrastructures to support the cars, campers, food and waste had to be created. Eventually we began to lose sight of the ecological values of our parks and the environment and wildlife people were coming to see started to disappear.

CPAWS came into existence in 1963, to monitor and save the nature within the parks and preserve it for future generations. In the 1980s and 1990s CPAWS and local partners in Banff pushed hard to prevent Park encroachment by developers of the Banff town site.

This led to a National Panel on the Ecological Integrity of our National Parks. Scientists and conservationists came together in a consensus report recommending that ecological integrity become the first priority in park management; the National Parks Act was changed accordingly. Scientists were hired by Parks Canada, and ecological monitoring and measurement became a reality. This model was the first in the world and was adopted by other countries such as Korea, the U.S. and Australia.

Looking forward, however, this priority is being challenged. Parks Canada has suffered massive cut-backs and scientists have been “shown the door”. As a result, the monitoring and evaluation in Canadian Parks is not taking place. Moreover, developmental pressures in our National Parks are being felt again. The private sector is getting involved in ways that are not always successful. To illustrate, Mr. Hébert-Daly showed a slide of the Jasper Discovery Walk – a massive glass-bottom platform, overhanging a cliff in Jasper National Park. The intent is to offer visitors an unobstructed view of wildlife. However, animals such as mountain goats, who are natural climbers, will not migrate into an area with an artificial overhang such as that. This example shows we still need increased vigilance regarding development and infrastructures within our parks. Another problem is that boundaries of the parks are not recognized by wildlife. At this point, Eric showed a slide of a baby caribou, possibly within a National Park. Not only do we need to protect what is inside the Parks, we also need to consider the impact of development outside the Parks. Our speaker showed a slide of Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is a proposal for oil fracking oil off the coast, just 100 metres outside the Park. Clearly, we need buffer zones around the Parks, including coastal and marine buffer zones, so the entire ecosystem remains healthy and survives.

Unilateralism to Multilateralism in Consultation and Planning

The second big shift around conservation efforts was the shift from a unilateral approach to planning and decision making to one that is multilateral and includes all ‘stakeholders’. In the early 1900’s park creation was done on a very ad-hoc basis without much logic or thought, sometimes with a reckless “wild west” mentality. Later, in the 1970’s more thought was put into the big picture and a decision was made to create a network of National Parks representing each of the distinct eco-regions in Canada. Presently there are 42 National Parks, and 26 of the 39 distinct ecoregions are represented. It was revolutionary to develop such a concept that would drive park creation nationally.

In the past, indigenous First Nations communities were ignored in the creation of Parks. Hebert-Daly related a story from the 1970s, about a small Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation community on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake accessible only by boat or plane. People from Ottawa made an unannounced visit and informed the community leader of their plans to develop a National Park there. He listened and then escorted them back to their plane and asked them to leave. From then on Hebert-Daly says, “to those First Nations people, the word ‘Park’ became a ‘four-letter’ word” as they feared for their right to their land and the conversion of their home lands into a public campground. The approach to conservation in those years was clearly unilateral and many ‘bridges were burned’. In recent years, the process is much more multilateral. Time is taken to consult those impacted and the decision to create a national park is lengthy. However, when there is an upwelling of community support for it, things can happen quickly, and remain inclusive.

For example, the same community on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake is now in negotiations with Parks Canada to create a co-managed National Park where they will be the interpreters and lead the eco-tourism initiatives. A new 30,000 square kilometre park to be named Thaidene Nene (Land of the Ancestors) is to be announced soon. This will be a fully co-managed National Park and an economic model for future generations. Hébert-Daly showed a slide of the beautiful Ts’akui Theda (Lady of the Falls) waterfalls within the proposed Thaidene Nene. It is a traditional pilgrimage and spiritual site for healing and prayer. A traditional story, explains that centuries ago First Nations people out hunting for a giant beaver that was destroying their homeland, left behind a beautiful woman. She had asked for some of the beaver blood but was not given any, so she stayed behind at the falls to heal and console people. Large ancestors of modern day beavers lived thousands of years ago in the area and skulls of these massive animals have been found.

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A waterfall in beautiful Thaidene Nene, a 30,000 square kilometre proposed National Park near the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. It will be a fully co-managed National Park and an economic model for future generations. Photo David Murray

A shift from islands to networks (but including some urban islands)

The third shift in conservation approach is from islands to networks. In the past efforts were made to protect a particular ecologically, culturally or spiritually significant area on its own. However, there needs to be interconnectivity, between individual areas or islands in order to create networks which will maintain ecological integrity, for example for adequate migration and mixing of individuals within a population. Remember the baby caribou? Creating a Caribou Recovery Strategy is only the first step in caring for this species. We need to take care of entire eco-systems to ensure survival of herds.

We need to look at the bigger picture. Land-use planning, considered by many a boring topic, will be critical for examining the landscape as a whole. All relevant players should be at the table deciding on the best possible use of the land. Where are the resources of interest and the conservation values? How can viable economic development, roads and infrastructure, and ecological integrity co-exist.

We need to examine what we value in our culture. We tend not to attribute an economic value to two of our most important resources: clean water and air – the very things that keep us alive and healthy. CPAWS is supporting David Suzuki and his 30 x 30 Nature Challenge for Canadians to get outside in nature for 30 minutes for 30 days in May. This is increasingly important when approximately 80% of Canada’s population lives in the cities and our population is becoming increasingly diverse with immigrants arriving from places which did not offer experiences of wilderness or familiarity with the benefits for wildlife and people.

Canada is fortunately taking interesting approaches to ensuring that everyone can get ‘back to nature’. This includes creating some island parks which are not connected to others, but will nevertheless serve a vital purpose. Rouge National Urban Park, in the middle of Toronto, is a new National Park which will be Canada’s first National Urban Park. While it will not be able to, nor will it be required to, maintain the same ecological standards as other national parks, it will have a huge benefit by virtue of a huge population at its doorstep.

Canada protects less than 10% of its public lands and only 1% of its oceans. Only four years ago, Australia was like Canada with minimal protection of its oceans but now Australia protects 35% of its oceans. So things can change if the will is there.

In conclusion, we have established some amazing protected areas in Canada over the last 127 years, and we have learned a lot along the way. However, we need constant vigilance to establish and maintain the ecological integrity of our park lands and waters. We cannot act unilaterally to protect places without risking creating barriers to future success. We are all inter-connected with our natural environments and our public natural areas need to be planned and managed at a broader scale than we have done so far.


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Éric Hébert-Daly (right) National Executive Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society inspired us with his “Nurturing our National Nature” talk on historical shifts in approach to conservation in Canada’s National Parks. He is shown here with Iain Wilkes, MVFN Board member and MC for the evening, Photo Pauline Donaldson

The following is a summary of key questions posed to Hébert-Daly following the presentation:

Where does CPAWS get its funding? The funding is from individuals and foundations. CPAWS does not rely on the government; therefore they can be critical of the governments, when required, and complimentary when merited.

What is the status of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement? The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement includes 9 environmental organizations signed with 21 forest companies who are members of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC). Under the Agreement, FPAC members commit to the highest environmental standards of forest management and conservation, while environmental organizations commit to global recognition and support for FPAC members efforts (reference http://www.canadianborealforestagreement.com/). Unfortunately, it is very hard to implement. The third anniversary of the Agreement is this Saturday. Depending on what happens in the next short while, there may be an announcement that CPAWS is very frustrated with certain aspects of the situation.

We have to ask what we are going to do with this landscape at the broad level. There is a lot of information out there but is has never been put together. We need to take the information and overlay it. For example, take Alberta and its Boreal Forest. When they overlaid where the caribou travel and where the forest, oil and gas areas are, it was discovered that all could take place in Alberta at the same time.

Who would be responsible for doing this overlay of existing information? That should be done by the Federal Government as it has responsibility for anything that crosses the provincial boundaries. Almost all resources belong to the provinces and implementation of conservation efforts has to happen at the provincial level.

What about the Budget cuts to the National Parks? That is a question of philosophy. There is an undermining of the scientific capacity at the federal level – almost as if they are thinking if we don’t know certain things – we can ignore it.

What are possible future areas for Parks?

• Mealy Mountains in Labrador –to protest a large portion of boreal forest, tundra and shoreline on the Labrador Sea.

• Parc national Tursujuq – to become the biggest national park in Quebec and the biggest in eastern North America

• Lancaster Sound – a national marine area in the Arctic

• Southern Strait of Georgia in BC – a national marine conservation area

• Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve – at the east end of Great Slave Lake

• Other possible areas include the South Okanagan in BC, and areas in Manitoba and Nova Scotia

What can a small organization like MVFN do? In answering this question posed after his talk, Hebert Daly said “Never underestimate the power of the written word.” A group like MVFN and its individual members could take the time to write letters or emails on specific environmental issues. Such actions can be very powerful. When many people are sending the same message to government and other officials they tend to pay attention. Be on the email list for CPAWS or other similar organizations and respond when requested.




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