Managing The Numbers

Why Parks Canada Needs To Get Its Head Around Managing Human Use

This is a first for me … providing a little more of the backstory to one of my novels … and while I do plan to eventually write the true stories behind my Dyed In The Green fiction series about the challenges facing Canada’s national parks, I feel it’s important to speak up now to provide some context behind the fiction that is Jasper Wild, a story that has as it’s basis the ever increasing human use and development in and around our national parks.

With a lot of eyes on our national parks during Canada’s sesquicentennial year (okay, it’s just a big word for one hundred and fiftieth anniversary), and free entry into those parks, it’s a critical time.

And, I would argue, time is running out.

It may already be too late for some parks.

But I’ll go with the premise that it isn’t … because Nature is resilient, to a point.

And we are a smart species … to a point.

But here’s the rub …

We need to get our heads around the notion of managing human use in many of our national parks.

No, not all of them.

There are national parks, especially remote northern national parks, that see relatively low numbers of visitors each year and for me that’s fine.

Oh, there will be those who say why even have these parks if you can’t get to them, but to those folks all I can say is, you’re missing the point.

One of the primary purposes of national parks is to protect representative examples of Canada’s natural regions, to set them aside before we bulldoze, blast and build our way into these areas … to keep them as natural as possible, not only for our benefit, and here’s the key, but for the benefit of future generations … our kids and our kid’s kids, and so on.

And if you are lucky enough to get to one of these more remote national parks, I expect you will appreciate the wild factor as well as not bumping into people at every turn.

But for most of our national parks, that’s not the case, especially during summer and the ever expanding “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall.

Most of our parks, in southern Canada in particular, see lots of people.

And that’s both a good and a bad thing.

After all we want people to enjoy our parks and protected areas and gain an appreciation and understanding of the importance of setting these places aside.

They are after all, some of the best of what we have to offer.

But there is a limit to how much human use and development a national park or other protected area can tolerate before it loses some of the very qualities it was set aside to protect.

I think everyone gets this.

It’s not rocket science.

But speaking of science, it’s been demonstrated in one scientific study after another that there are thresholds beyond which wildlife and wild places are negatively affected by our use.

Some of these impacts directly affect wildlife habitat and the species that live there. After all, when you transform a natural area into a road or other development, it’s no longer of much use to wildlife. And the added indirect affects of the human use associated with our infrastructure, incrementally reduce the area’s value to wildlife.

In short, our presence often has the effect of displacing wildlife to other areas, effectively further reducing the amount of space available for them to survive.

Human use, in and of itself, brings with it it’s own assortment of impacts, largely dependent on how many people use an area, when they’re there and the types of activities they’re pursuing.

In response wildlife can avoid using these areas altogether at certain times of the year, or choose to use them differently.

So when protected areas such as our national parks get inundated with people, one of the side effects is that wildlife and their habitats, that are supposed to be protected within said national parks, are impacted.

Yet, the organization responsible for our national parks doesn’t always seem to get it.

Or at least the people that are in a position to change things don’t get it, because there are tons of other people in Parks Canada who do get it.

In fact, the organization has had and still has people who probably know as much as anyone in the world, about the need to manage human use in protected areas.

But they either aren’t in management or if they are, their concerns and issues get pushed aside in favour of other interests.

It’s got to be frustrating.

To raise the flag and say that human use might be one of the factors causing impacts on a species or a specific habitat in a national park, and to see that species continue to decline or an area of habitat continue to deteriorate while literally nothing of consequence is done about it, is in my view, a perverse outcome, considering it’s taking place in a national park.

This isn’t an unprotected area, after all.

It’s a national park.

Worse still is to see that use not only continue, but increase, to see development proposals considered and approved and another small piece of the park carved off to appease a specific interest group or developer.

It’s more than perverse. When you consider the intent behind the National Parks Act, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it’s criminal.

Yet, the solution is not that difficult.

We just need to get our heads around the fact that we don’t manage ecosystems, and we don’t manage wildlife. The best that we can do is manage our own use, to ensure that our impacts on wildlife, our impacts on ecosystems, are minimal.

Because the Triple E approach to managing human use in our national parks doesn’t work.

We can’t continue to allow Everyone, to do Everything, Everywhere.

Instead, we need an approach that puts the right people in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

It isn’t about shutting down human use.

In fact, I always laugh when I hear people use that line because they are often people with vested interests trying to prevent anyone from telling them what they can do in their parks.

And they still seem to think the argument holds water after the two millionth visitor has passed through the park gates.

So I’ll say it again, with the added power of italics!

It’s not about shutting down human use.

It’s all about appropriate use, including how much.

It’s about knowing when enough is enough.

And there are ways to measure it.

Scientifically proven ways with the potential to refine them even further.

Yet over the years, Parks Canada, which was once at the leading edge of developing some of those approaches, turned a corner away from any notion of managing use in favour of promoting tourism and increasing visitation.

The new approach took off under the watch of the last government and it remains to be seen what will happen with the new one.

So far, I would suggest nothing has changed, but I’m willing to give it time.

Some time.

The response to congestion in our national parks can’t be to build a larger parking lot.

Something has to give.

Hopefully those in Parks Canada who know what needs to be done will finally have their voices heard. And those who don’t get it will hopefully be open to figuring it out, or maybe they’ll move on.

But it needs to happen soon.

Parks Canada has the potential to be a world leader in getting it right when it comes to managing human use in our national parks in a way that minimizes our impacts on wildlife and wild spaces.

The organization has the potential to be at the leading edge of understanding how to manage levels of human use to maintain some of the most basic ecological process like wildlife movement.

But if it doesn’t happen sooner, rather than later, it will be tough to turn back the clock.

I venture to guess that this summer, with free admission into our national parks, a few people’s eyes might get opened regarding the need to wisely manage human use in our most iconic and heavily visited national parks.

Maybe it will be the wake-up call we need to tackle this issue so we can indeed leave our parks unimpaired for future generations.

Maybe it’ll be the call to action our parks and protected areas need.

I guess we’ll see.