Canada’s national parks system turns 100

April 25, 2011

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2011 C12

Two parks, nine historic sites

Parks Canada’s responsibilities in Manitoba:

Red River Valley

  • Forts Rouge, Garry and Gibraltar National Historic Sites
  • Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site
  • Riel House National Historic Site
  • St. Andrews Rectory National Historic Site
  • The Forks National Historic Site

Western Manitoba

  • Linear Mounds National Historic Site
  • Riding Mountain National Park
  • Riding Mountain National Park—East Gate Registration Complex National Historic Site

Hudson Bay

  • Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site
  • Wapusk National Park
  • York Factory National Historic Site

If you scan a list of famous people born a century ago, you’ll come up with U.S. president Ron Reagan, his Soviet counterpart Konstantin Chernenko and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder Church of Scientology.

In Canada, the most important birth of 1911 was not a person but an institution—the now quaint-sounding Dominion Parks Branch.

The precursor of Parks Canada came into being when the now-defunct federal Department of the Interior decided to create a national park system, encompassing Banff National Park— actually founded back in 1885—and some wildlife preserves in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

At the time, it was the first national park system on the planet.  There are now 46 national parks, reserves, marine preserves and monuments in Canada, plus another 167 national historic sites administered by Parks Canada.

Manitoba’s portion of the system involves nine national historic sites and two parks: road-accessible Riding Mountain and the remote Wapusk, along Hudson Bay. Attempts to develop a third national park in the province along the northwest shores of Lake Winnipeg are in limbo,  although Parks Canada still hopes to develop a new park in the Manitoba Lowlands at some point in the future.

In the short term, the people in charge of Riding Mountain and Wapusk are trying to make the two very different parks more visitor-friendly.

But since there’s isn’t much new money flowing into Parks Canada from Ottawa—a succession of Liberal and Conservative governments have kept a tight grip on spending since the mid-1970s—some of the improvements depend on the efforts of volunteers and businesses.

In Riding Mountain National Park, three hours northwest of Winnipeg,  park staff are working with volunteers and residents of nearby communities on a plan to redevelop the east side of the park, where the Manitoba Escarpment rises 335 metres off the prairies.

© Parks Canada

Riding Mountain may shut down some of its more pockmarked trails and rehabilitate them or replace them with new routes, designed to be more scenic and resistant to erosion, said James Gordon, the park’s product development manager.

Reeve’s Ravine, a new mountain-biking and hiking trail developed by the volunteer Manitoba Escarpment Trail Society, should open this fall. A permanent, well-marked connecting route from Bald Hill Trail to Bald Hill itself, which is easily missed, may also be completed this year.

In the longer term, new trails could form the backbone of a new backcountry trail system in the east side of the park. More back-country cabins may be built to take some of the pressure off Cairn’s Cabin and new trail developments are planned for the Clear Lake and Audy Campground areas.

And the Manitoba Recreational Trails Association is hoping to right a trail-building wrong by connecting the Trans Canada Trail to Riding Mountain National Park by creating a link to the Rossburn Subdivision trail to the south of the park.

Riding Mountain is also planning make the park more accessible to front-country users who may not venture further than the Wasagaming townsite. Gordon hopes to expand interpretive programming during the spring-and-fall shoulder seasons.

In the long term, there’s also the possibility Wasagaming could function as a year-round town. Under the terms of old leases, signed before modern sewage-treatment facilities were developed, the townsite shuts down during the winter, hampering tourism in the Riding Mountain region.

Way up in Wapusk, the challenge involves getting people into the park at all. Pilot projects conducted to explore the feasibility of bringing hikers into the park as part of guided daytrips or overnight stays— the latter in compounds impervious to polar bears—have yet to translate into a regular menu of tour offerings.

Wapusk is still exploring the possibility of licensing heli-hiking,  dog-sledding and canoeing tours run by private outfitters, said Marilyn Peckett, Parks Canada’s field unit superintendent for Manitoba.

Frontiers North Adventures, one of two Churchill-based companies that offer the tundra-buggy tours popular with polar-bear watchers, is trying to develop a plan to bring casual ecotourists into Wapusk, which is only accessible by air or boat.

This poses a chicken-and-egg logistical challenge, as you need a relatively large volume of tourists to justify the full-time presence of a helicopter available to take tourists into Wapusk—and the type of tourist interested in visiting the pristine taiga won’t materialize unless flights are available.

“Wapusk is just so difficult to get into,” said John Gunter, general manager of Frontiers North.

Gunter advises visitors to check with Parks Canada staff when they arrive in Churchill, as there are days when a helicopter is available to his company.

Parks Canada is planning some form of centennial celebration for most of its Manitoba sites. At the very least, there will be concerts at Riding Mountain and The Forks National Historic Site, Peckett said.

A public gathering in Wapusk may prove more difficult.

“We’re thinking of having cake at the Cape,” said Peckett, referring to Cape Churchill, which Frontiers North is licensed to visit via tundra buggy.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2011 C12

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