Park will be gift to Canada and the world

December 4, 2001

LAST March, Premier Gary Doer and David Anderson, then federal environment minister, signed an agreement to work toward the creation of Manitoba’s third national park in the northern Interlake by May 2005, and to complete public consultations by the end of 2004.

The year is now over, and the consultations have not even started. The May deadline will almost certainly not be met. So what gives?

The proposed park, intended to represent the Manitoba Lowlands natural region in Canada’s system of national parks, was one of former prime minister Jean Chretien’s legacy projects. But it has been stymied for years by a lack of financial resources and personnel, and an unwillingness to make hard choices.

What is at stake is a two-part area north and south of Grand Rapids. It contains magnificent sand beaches stretching to the horizon, the longest freshwater sand spit in Canada, and frontage on two of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, Lake Winnipeg and Lake Winnipegosis. It supports some of the greatest concentrations and diversities of inland colonial nesting birds anywhere in Canada. It has an abundance of wetlands, bogs, marshes and shallow lakes that serve as major staging areas for waterfowl and shorebirds during fall migration. There are spectacular limestone cliffs and a karst, or limestone, topography with characteristics that make it unique in the world.

It also contains two natural features that cry out for protection. The first is the southwest portion of the Long Point component. This is the only place in North America where the five major species of ungulates, including white-tailed deer, moose, elk, the threatened woodland caribou and the reintroduced wood bison share a common habitat.

The second is Little Limestone Lake. What could be more unique than a lake that changes colour with the air temperature, from a brilliant turquoise to a robin’s-egg blue? That’s what happens in Little Limestone Lake. It is the finest example of a marl lake in the world, according to Dr. Derek Ford, the world’s foremost authority on karst, where marl lakes occur. (Marl is created when calcite, the chief constituent of limestone, is chemically precipitated from warm water.)

Such a spectacular natural wonder should be a no-brainer for inclusion in the park. Yet the lake is situated just outside the proposed boundary, with no protection whatsoever. For years governments have caved in to mining industry pressures to leave it out because of its presumed mineral potential. It’s time for the province to tell industry that they can’t have this globally significant jewel of central Manitoba.

To the two governments’ credit, the years of fits and starts have not been totally wasted. A seriously deficient proposal in 1996 for a 2,841-square-kilometre park has grown to 4,448 square kilometres in the proposal released last March. With the exception of the missing piece of Little Limestone Lake, it would now be large enough to ensure its long-term ecological integrity and would include the elements necessary to be truly representative of the Manitoba Lowlands.

Unfortunately there is a catch. The map released in March contains two parts: “core lands” and “proposed additions.” The difference is not a reflection of the relative importance of the two, which, from a scientific perspective, are all essential to the integrity of the park. Rather, they reflect the timidity of the provincial government in moving ahead without the permission of the mining and forestry sectors who have not “signed on” to the whole package. Striving for consensus is praiseworthy, but not when it leads to paralysis in public policy. Will Premier Doer cave in to industry pressures to scale back, or will he stand firm on the best conservation project his government has ever brought forth?

Full support from local communities is critical to the creation of the park, and commendably, the two governments do not wish to proceed without it. But the town of Grand Rapids and some First Nations have been reluctant to engage in the process. They have a lot of leverage and, understandably, they are using it. They have let governments know that they want a number of issues dealt with before tackling the park, such as resolving compensation for the building of the Grand Rapids hydro dam, a desire for additional reserve land, and forestry allocations.

Until now, governments have preferred to deal with each issue separately and avoid linkage. It hasn’t worked. The linkage is there by virtue of the fact that Parks Canada has given First Nations an effective veto. So deal with it. Put all the issues on the table. Offer quid pro quos. The new park will be a gift to Canada and to the world. Local communities will be proud to contribute to this endeavour if they can be assured that they will benefit and be involved. With communities all over North America thriving in the proximity of national parks, this should not be a difficult case to make. The park will diversify the local economy, provide stable long-term jobs, and contribute to the protection of Lake Winnipeg and its commercial fishery.

All the facts are known about the proposed park. All the studies have been done. Federal financing is in place. All the players are identified and know their interests. It’s now time for them to sit down together, bargain in good faith, and create a legacy for future generations.

Roger Turenne is past president of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Manitoba Chapter.

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