Parks Canada celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and Canadians have much to be proud of. The planet’s oldest national parks service has established a reputation as one of the best; its conservation practices are studied and imitated the world over. Yet its first priority, “to protect the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole,” has never been more important. So what should it do next – not so much so that we can enjoy our lands and waters, but so that they can simply continue to exist?
Above all, Parks Canada should accelerate its sound plan to establish a national park in each of Canada’s 39 “terrestrial regions.” Today, only 28 of them have such parks. Northern Quebec and B.C.‘s plateau areas are especially lacking in protection. It has also identified 29 marine regions, but only four marine conservation areas have been established. Iconic sites such as the Bay of Fundy, Lake Ontario and the Beaufort Sea need protection. Without action, conservation gets harder and more expensive, due to the effects of climate change, the demands of populations and our taste for natural resources.
But Parks Canada will have to take a dynamic view; areas not yet deemed worthy of protection may soon need it. The needs are just as great closer to places where Canadians live or move through. Protect an “umbrella” species like the grizzly or the woodland caribou by protecting the lands that a species travels between, and a host of other flora and fauna that needs less space to survive benefits too. To preserve these ecosystems, Parks Canada should work with First Peoples, provinces and municipalities, NGOs and private companies.
What of the public’s relationship to land and water? Parks Canada includes “visitor experience” in its mandate. It’s important to provide access in order to maintain and enhance our connection to and appreciation for Canada’s natural heritage. And access can be extended by creating new parks in or near cities, such as the one planned for the Rouge River Valley in the Greater Toronto Area.
But our national parks cannot provide full-service hotels or multi-lane highways. The human footprint should be light. Conservation should always take precedence. Banff is not the right model. And parks can be enjoyed from afar: The National Parks Project, a new interactive art piece, marries the majesty and stillness of the parks with new music and film for anyone with an Internet connection.
Canada is in a position to lead the world on conservation. No country is so vast, yet so urban. No country has such a history of conservation. And no country has an agency as qualified and envied as Parks Canada. It needs political and public support to continue the job.