Parks With Purpose

The primary mandate of Parks Canada seems to be shifting, with an increasing emphasis on developing recreational opportunities over conservation of the environment.


The battle lines were drawn as soon as the government decided to get into the hot springs business. In 1885, the Canadian government took over Banff’s Cave and Basin in order to settle an ownership dispute and attract tourists along the new Canadian Pacific Railway. Soon the small, protected enclave grew to become the first national park in Canada, only the third national park in the world and the centrepiece of a system of parks that now spans the country.

Although always including a balance between the public and the private, the recreational and the ecological, the mandate of those parks has evolved over time. The pendulum has swung from the initial era of parks dedicated to promoting tourism – with private hotels and outfitters courting both national and international tourists, while Parks Canada paid lip service to ecological integrity – to a primary focus on preservation as the driving force of the park system. And now, the pendulum is swinging back, with more commercial development, especially in our local mountain parks.

According to its charter, Parks Canada’s commitment is “[t]o protect, as a first priority, the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole” – not only now but for future generations. However, recent decisions that are bringing increased development – such as the widening of the Bow Valley Parkway, proposed expansion of the Lake Louise ski area and the opening of the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park – as a result of what looks like political interference, and at a time of cuts to scientific funding and staffing at Parks Canada, call the ability of the agency to carry out its mandate into serious question.

In a 2013 report from the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development – under the office of the Auditor General of Canada – among the concerns cited was the fact Parks Canada “has not met its own target for establishing, by 2009, a fully functional and scientifically credible monitoring and reporting system for ecological integrity in Canada’s national parks.”

The report, which looked at nine parks it considered representative of Parks Canada’s portfolio, details an alarming lack of knowledge and manpower within Parks Canada, highlighting a 23-per cent reduction in overall staffing for conservation and a decrease in scientific staff positions by more than a third. Parks Canada told auditors that five-year monitoring plans were in place for all national parks and formed the basis for funding requests, but all nine of the parks examined in the report had plans based on “out-of-date budget assumptions” and “none had been updated to reflect the agency’s 2011 monitoring guidelines or revised budgets for ecological integrity monitoring.”

The data that was collected often wasn’t loaded into the agency database, further calling into question the validity of reports produced by Parks Canada on the state of its holdings. The auditor’s report came 25 years after the National Parks Act was amended to clarify what many had already believed was its fundamental purpose – giving primacy to ecological integrity over visitor experience.

When the national parks system was established, the intent was to lure tourists to a fledgling country with a new, privately owned transcontinental railway. Hot springs nestled into soaring mountains were used as bait for wealthy European tourists, and the Banff Springs Hotel, constructed by the CPR, sprouted from its majestic perch to strut Western Canada’s stuff. Now part of the Fairmont chain, it endures as a lasting symbol of the blending of private and public interests in Canada’s parks. Park management was formalized in the 1930 National Parks Act, which stipulated that protection of natural resources was one function of the parks. But, by today’s standards, there was still wide latitude for recreational activities to take place. Private ski hills, transportation, townsites, camps, bungalows, lodges, hotels and more flourished within the mountain parks.

The freedom to pursue commercial interests in the parks became a larger issue in Alberta when the province first started to feel the intoxicating effects of oil wealth. During the era of the “blue-eyed sheiks” (a colloquial name given to the Canadian oil industry in the 1970s), then-premier Peter Lougheed shovelled money into economic diversification to dampen the addiction. One of his targets was to increase tourism.

“Suddenly, all these operations in the mountain national parks had access to money,” says Kevin Van Tighem, a long-time parks employee who left the agency in 2011 after serving a stint as superintendent of Banff National Park. “Once they had access to money, that meant they didn’t have a limit on their ambitions and they all wanted to do stuff, and so there was this big development boom.”

Eventually, that boom resulted in a public outcry and decades of trying to set guidelines for commercial operations in the parks that would limit growth and impact on the environment. The late 1980s and early ’90s, when everything came to a head, was a tough time for Van Tighem and Parks Canada.

“It wasn’t fun for some of these places,” says Van Tighem. “Some of these places are mom-and-pop operations [that] are really deeply rooted in place, really deeply part of the history of the park in question. And they looked around at some of their neighbours who had been bought out by big corporations and had big developments already happen and they said, ‘Well, so these guys get all this development and we get nothing?’ The answer was, ‘Yeah, because the clock just started today; you’re on the wrong side of the line, unfortunately.'”

It was a hard-fought battle that brought in a new regime focused primarily on the natural world, essentially wrapping the federal agency’s dual mandate of visitor experience and ecological protection under a uniting philosophy – people visit parks because of their natural wonder, so, in order to provide the best visitor experience, that natural heritage should be considered above all else.

By 1988, the National Parks Act was amended to officially give primacy to ecological integrity within the park system, finally establishing clear rules about limiting growth, protecting wildlife and fixing some of the problems that had arisen over the years of more laissez-faire management. But the tug of war between tourism and ecological integrity never really went away, and recent changes have some worried.

“What we believe we’re seeing right now is that the tides appear to be reversing again,” says Anne-Marie Syslak, executive director of the southern Alberta chapter of the environmental group Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

The issue of development and environment is front and centre again, particularly close to home in our local mountain parks, thanks to the completion of site guideline negotiations for Lake Louise Ski Resort, the drafting of a long-range plan for Marmot Basin in Jasper and the opening of summer activities at Norquay, as well as talk of privatizing hot pools, the 2014 opening of the private Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park and millions of dollars in infrastructure spending from the federal government aimed at increasing the number of parks visitors.

It’s the ski areas, and the complex regulations governing them, that attract a significant amount of media and public attention. Ski-hill developments must work within a sort of nesting doll set of rules in the national parks. There are the national ski area guidelines, which govern the specific ski area guidelines, which govern the long-range plans for developments on each hill, which provide the blueprint for approval or rejection of expansion and construction by Parks Canada. It’s all meant to constrain as well as add a level of stability for the ski areas, and provide a framework through which Parks Canada can operate.

Van Tighem helped negotiate the site guidelines at Norquay, the second ski hill to jump into the fray after Marmot Basin. He thinks Parks Canada has become too generous and less rigorous when it comes to ski hills, and has been a vocal critic of the Lake Louise guidelines. “I think there’s a Stockholm Syndrome that happens when you get into a room and start negotiating, right?” he says. “Everybody just wants to solve the problem and it’s the other guy’s problem, so, if you’re not careful, it becomes your problem.”

There has been plenty of opposition to the Lake Louise guidelines, with CPAWS saying it represents an environmental loss due to the possibility of nearly doubling the hill’s capacity. Van Tighem, who signed a letter opposing the guidelines along with 10 other former Parks Canada staff, is upset that, although Lake Louise is giving up 1,025 hectares of its lease in exchange for the possible use of 466 hectares, the hill could move into wilderness-zoned slopes and valleys while the area it gave up is zoned for outdoor recreation.

Dan Markham, a spokesperson for Lake Louise, says he’s happy with the way the negotiations worked out and bristles at some of the criticism levelled at the plans. “Well, I guess that’s really their personal, subjective opinion about how someone would interpret the guidelines, and that’s really up to them,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are currently working for Parks Canada who obviously feel differently.”

At Marmot Basin, the controversy centres around the risk to the dwindling Tonquin caribou herd that relies on areas surrounding the hill as habitat. No final approvals have been made, and Parks Canada has said it will examine the impact of any expansion on the threatened caribou. However, for critics, the controversy around the project took on a conspiratorial tone when a report by University of Alberta biologist Fiona Schmiegelow, commissioned by John Wilmshurst, Jasper’s former resource conservation manager, condemned the habitat intrusion. Schmiegelow released the report after Wilmshurst was reportedly fired. (Neither Wilmshurst nor Schmiegelow were available for comment.)

It’s not just the development taking place in the parks, but the perception of political interference in Parks Canada that is most concerning to some critics. Lobbyists hired by private companies promote their cause directly to ministers at the same time that Parks’ own science-based assessments are declining. Van Tighem sees some park decisions motivated by politics rather than by adherence to the agency’s mandate or a basis in knowledge of the sensitivities of the wilderness areas.

The Lake Louise guidelines, approved on Aug. 1, 2015, were negotiated over many years, and Markham says the resort stuck to the process and did not use political lobbying. However, there was a lobbyist hired to represent Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Marmot Basin in 2007 on the matter of site guidelines. Norquay also enlisted lobbyists prior to negotiating its guidelines.

Sunshine Village, the last resort to enter the process, has now hired former Conservative MP and cabinet minister Monte Solberg. His lobbyist registration (posted online by the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying in Canada) indicates he is speaking to the government in regard to “Negotiations concerning a Long-Range Plan with the Parks Canada Agency.” Solberg met twice with Rachel Curran, then-director of policy in the Prime Minister’s Office under Stephen Harper, once on Nov. 4, 2014, and again on May 20, 2015. He also met once with Colin Carrie, a parliamentary secretary in the House of Commons.

Through a spokesperson, Sunshine COO Dave Riley writes: “Sunshine Village is in very preliminary discussions with Parks Canada over our future planning. We feel that it would be premature to speculate on the outcome at this time.”

While ski-hill development has an established and mandatory multi-step process of review, some other development reviews are more ad hoc. And some of the recent decisions seem to stand apart from the agency’s mandate. Prior to the recent federal election, Mother Canada – a 24.38-metre-tall sculpture of a shrouded woman with her arms outstretched that was proposed for Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia as a memorial to Canada’s war dead – was pushed by Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani and aggressively backed by the Harper Government. Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal regime, however, quickly put an end to the plan. While that project fell by the wayside, closer to home, there was the construction of the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park and the planned widening of the Bow Valley Parkway inside Banff National Park.

Despite his pointed criticism of the Lake Louise ski area guidelines, Van Tighem is generally supportive of the work going on in the Banff park and has no concerns over the proposed idea of privatizing its hot pools. But his tone changes noticeably as soon as you mention paving and widening the Bow Valley Parkway. Last July, the federal government announced a commitment of $67 million to widen the road’s shoulders – part of an overall investment of $117.5 million in highways in Banff National Park.

“That is totally political, that is absolutely outside of policy. That’s a travesty in my opinion,” says Van Tighem. “That was not in the park-management plan; it actually contravenes the management plan.”

Van Tighem believes he has seen evidence of a larger political footprint on park management over the last four years. It’s difficult to point to the ecological benefit of widening a road that goes through habitat so critical there are seasonal closures of the thoroughfare for the benefit of wildlife. And the suggestion that the road is being widened for cyclists doesn’t pass the sniff test. In fact, John Marriott, who was a member of the community advisory group on the Bow Valley Parkway project, told the Calgary Herald in July 2015 that biking was never even a part of the discussion. Marriott pointed to the fact the Legacy Trail, which follows the Trans-Canada Highway, could be extended to the Icefields Parkway to accommodate cyclists without disrupting critical habitat.

Says Syslak: “I would question whether that money is actually intended to enhance the conservation values for that area or if it is, again, a trend in this commercial development process.” She also points to the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper as an example of that trend. “They took a public viewpoint and made it private for commercial gain,” she says. Brewster Travel, which owns and operates the Skywalk, has operated in the national parks practically since day one, and has seen the parks’ mandate swing from tourism to conservation and now maybe back again.

As with privatization of health care, for some Canadians, privatization of any kind in the national parks system is a major philosophical sticking point. And, although the process seems to have stalled, the suggestion of privatizing the parks’ hot pools reflects a changing attitude from the government toward public holdings and goes to the heart of the creation myth of the parks system.

Van Tighem sees possible hot-pool privatization as a sound decision, freeing up money that could be spent on more relevant endeavours, like tracking the ecological health of parks, while providing a better experience for the visitors who are still central to Parks Canada’s mission. Much of the recent and planned development in the parks, including the widening of the Bow Valley Parkway, are intended to increase visitation. The latest performance report from Parks Canada, for the 2013-14 year, says it ended “a 15-year declining trend in visitation [in 2012-13]. The Agency’s efforts in 2013-14 helped maintain visitation at 20.7 million.”

The performance reports also indicated that special events, multimedia promotions, participation at trade shows, as well as “expansion of overnight accommodations and onsite technology applications, capital investments in visitor infrastructure, and upgrades to the Agency’s campground reservation system,” all contributed to the solid numbers.

The increase in visitors represents a change in fortune, but it also represents a challenge to the primary mandate of conservation. How many visitors is enough, and how many is too many? Is the wonder of nature enough for us, and what happens to that wonder if we add something new in order to attract more people? When we put a sheen over something already magnificent, can we ever go back to appreciating it as it once was?

“As we’ve seen funding cuts to Parks Canada, there’s been a push for revenue generation,” says Syslak. “From CPAWS’ perspective, this doesn’t mean commercialization and building infrastructure in the park. We don’t need to create Disneyland to attract visitors. The draw to these areas is the natural beauty and wildlife, and we have to make that the top priority for the management of these areas.”

CPAWS sees another option for dealing with the crowds of people eager to visit the parks: create more. Its latest report, however, shows Canada is falling behind on its international commitments under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to protect at least 17 per cent of our land and fresh water, both provincially and federally, by 2020. Syslak points out that only 10 per cent of Canada’s public land is currently protected, with only three per cent in national parks. CPAWS wants to see half of Canada’s public lands and waters protected. This would effectively protect almost 45 per cent of the country’s land and water. “Our parks are a great asset to this country from an economic and environmental stance,” Syslak says.

While the federal government is creating new parks, it is also making compromises. Special legislation for the Rouge National Urban Park in and near Toronto waters down its environmental protections to the point where the provincial government pulled their portion of lands from the deal out of concern. The Nts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories doesn’t include important habitat that critics, including CPAWS’ national office, say is essential for protecting both wildlife and the Nahanni watershed. By Parks Canada’s own admission, the boundaries were created while considering mineral potential and existing mineral rights claims.

The Harper Government’s tight control on information has been well-documented – as has its dismantling of environmental regulations – from suppressing government scientists’ ability to speak to the media, to the insistence on consistent messaging through all MPs, departments and agencies. Parks Canada declined to provide an interview for this article, written during the federal election campaign.

So, we are left to wonder which direction our national parks are heading, particularly with a new government in place eager to distance itself from the previous regime. Past government seems to have thumbed its nose at its own legislation and actively promoted the privatization of protected land for private commercial interests. The monitoring to ensure ecological integrity has been dismantled (or never instituted), developments are being pushed forward, public assets sold, infrastructure built and communication stifled. Unlike nature’s precarious foothold, once a private enterprise establishes itself, it is very difficult to remove.

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