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The Battle for Canada’s National Parks

Endless pressure, endlessly applied! A strategy that can lead to some very good things, however rarely that may happen, or it can be erosive and degrading, as is now the case with Canada’s National Parks. The campaign to have the private sector take over public lands has been decades in the building, much like a volcano brews below the surface, but today the pressure to turn Canadas National Parks into a chain of Disneyland like midways, where business interests with privileged access and influence exploit visitors for commercial gain, has exploded into our parks; never has it been more blatant or more intense.

Endless pressure comes in a mix of subtle and blunt forms ? coercion, innuendo, misrepresentation and misinformation, propaganda, scare tactics (use it or lose it, for example) and creeping infiltration of political oversight and management, to name but a few. A look at some of these “tools”, now being bragged about in recent editorials, is worthy of the effort.

It is true that Canada’s National Parks have never been what they could be, nor have they ever achieved what they should be; they have failed to meet even the gutter standard of being representative landscapes, notably unable to protect ecologically functional ecosystems, and increasingly the play ground of special interests. Humans and all life on earth depend on viable ecosystems, not just occasional, “representative” parts of ecosystems dispersed almost randomly across the land, places usually found “somewhere else”. National Parks should, on the other hand, be a key part of protecting ecological viability in all ecosystems. To do that Canadians will have to purge our Parks of industrial level invasions that have led to significant ecological decay and, contrary to the shrill claims of some media, consist of activities that have never acted to build support for or interest in Parks or the Parks Act; downhill skiing, golf and a cancerous spread of private facilities for shopping and consumerism come to mind as being foremost amongst these violations.

Claims by Park management, some politicians and conservative media that parks are close to reaching some balance between conservation and commercialization, implying more commercialization yet should be forthcoming, are the end product of decades of endless lobbying and propaganda; Such amazing statements can only be made when people and organizations have divorced themselves from scientific enquiry, factual evidence, democratic process (ever notice how public hearings have quietly gone the way of the dodo bird, or should I say the caribou in Banff?) and environmental impact assessment.

True to Chamber of Commerce form, if abuses of a Park already exist, then business sees them as an open gate to further and greater abuses, hence we see things like “we already charge some park users for some activities, no matter how out of place and inappropriate the activity, like golf and downhill skiing, so why not further clutter the environment with ziplines and mountain biking”? After all, isn’t there money to be made? And isn’t that the measure of success? It is this vacuous reasoning that has led to the land use, biodiversity and population crises, not to mention global atmospheric degradation, we now face across the land.

Parks Canada has never, with rare exceptions, been forward thinking, no matter how strenuous be the claims that they have been. If Parks had a public interest vision, Banff, for example, would be more like Yellowstone National Park. Now, I apologize to Yellowstone for making this comparison, because Yellowstone is not just part of a functional ecosystem, it is core to that ecosystem. Management of Yellowstone is not perfect, of course, but the Park is surprisingly ecologically effective and, notably, it seems to be holding the line on commercial invasions. It just looks perfect when compared to what’s going on in Banff and Jasper. Yellowstone, counter to Banff, attracts visitors who largely share all or some combination of these values: admiration of wildlife and natural spectacle, enjoying contact with the natural world, appreciating National Parks as landscapes set aside to protect natural processes, and marveling at the opportunity to visit such a place; mostly, they are citizens who “own” the Park.

On the opposite end of the scale, it is no surprise that visitation to Banff is “flat” even with massive taxpayer subsidized advertising campaigns to lure people for essentially urban holidays and experiences ? shopping, eating, golfing, down hill skiing, and spending ? and maybe some mountain biking, the latter being a sure fire way to drive away centuries worth of traditional, walking/hiking park users. All of these activities are the antithesis of what National Parks were meant to be, and could have evolved to be, if Canadians, not corporations or the Chamber of Commerce, had control of Parks Canada and the Parks Act. This new spate of commercially driven proposals ? mountain biking, by the way, is more than a proposal, and is already eating into the ecological integrity of Banff and Jasper, having been slipped by Canadians in closed door get-togethers ? move parks ever further away from being landscapes of common and national value to all Canadians.

It is common practice to dredge up “guidelines” to qualify industrialization, as though they might be some antidote to inappropriate, destructive and conflict ridden use; this is routine, repetitious strategy for commercial interests wishing to stuff another illegitimate activity down the publics throat. Community gardens? Fabulous natural plant assemblages abound in our Parks, but these are apparently not good enough, so how about a row of carrots? And major editorials defend this trinket advocacy as “connecting with the great outdoors”? There is apparently no limit to the bastardization of language when the private sector smells blood, or should I say a cash cow.

It is true also that the future of our Parks is up for grabs; that is primarily because Parks Management, ranging from a series of subversive Ministers hand picked for their privatization mentality, to a corporate CEO as Parks head honcho, to weak and intimidated regional management, have adopted commercialization and privatization as their goal for parks. As a former Yellowstone Superintendent famously said of chamber of commerce types and their lobbyists “these people would sell hot dogs at their grandmothers funeral”. He would probably be dumbfounded to know that in Canada, that insight includes much of senior Parks Management. The legal obligation to protect even some of Canada’s natural landscapes has been bulldozed aside, largely undefended by the legally alienated public, fueled by collusion between large environmental organizations and Parks management and, sadly, systematically neglected by elected parliamentarians.

There are progressive citizens who are up in arms about this wholesale adulteration of the public interest and public process, but they have been suppressed by powerful interests lined up for a piece of the pork that can be extracted from National Parks. These special places are some of Canada’s most ecologically critical and valuable public assets but they are gasping for help. Corporate and media interests, along with sympathetic politicians and management, now have a choke hold on National Parks; they’ve gotten that hold by shunting Canadians aside.

Now is the time to see if Canadians are willing and able to rise up and demand major reform of Parks Management, starting with dismissal of chief marketing agent and CEO Alan Latourelle ? this is the man who boasted “65 product development and 35 promotions specialists are now being added to the Parks Canada team” ? after he and the Parks Agency have systematically and deliberately gutted interpretive, warden, and ecological monitoring services of far more than 100 positions.

Following his removal, Canadians must replace senior Ottawa, regional and Park management staff, presently handicapped by a Chamber of Commerce mentality, with people driven by a conservation ethic and agenda. Its long past time to demand a return to a) the tradition of equal access for all citizens at fair cost, b) management that places strong priority on ecological function, conservation and respectful enjoyment and interaction with nature, and c) nation wide public hearings to re- establish a public vision for Parks.

Brian L. Horejsi is an ecologist living in Canada.

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