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The Ram Plateau in the Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories. (Mike Beedell)
The Ram Plateau in the Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories. (Mike Beedell)

Parks Canada faces climb of the century Add to ...

Millions of Canadians have never set foot in the country's wondrous national parks, and that's the problem. Or is it? To a conservationist, the tension between man and nature has never been greater: Parks were created to be enjoyed but also to be protected, and it's this very enjoyment - sometimes referred to, in ecological circles, as "human intrusion" - that most worries the protectors of the unspoiled wilds that constitute the greater portion of Parks Canada's portfolio.

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But can a national park truly exist when no one sees it? What may once have seemed a philosophical question has now become increasingly political: Governments find it much easier to justify expenditure on park protection, ecological research and property acquisition when voters clustered in their urban and suburban jungles feel some kinship with the land.

Which helps explain why, a hundred years after its founding, Parks Canada has found a new mission: Reality TV.

The agency that oversees such legendary destinations as Kluane, Gros Morne, Nahanni and Banff is collaborating on Operation Unplugged, a Travel and Escape Channel show in which eight young competitors are stripped of their electronic resources and forced to compete for supremacy in national-park settings.

"We're trying to engage those who enjoy a good reality-show concept," says Environment Minister Peter Kent. "But at the same time, it's in the setting of our national spaces and national parks. So if the viewer says, 'Boy, I'd like to visit it myself,' then we've achieved our goals."

Eight out of 10 Canadians live in urban centres and non-rural areas, and a growing number have never visited a national park. Yet a 2010 Environics survey placed national parks alongside health care, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and our flag as the top four symbols of Canadian identity. Parks came in ahead of hockey, the RCMP and even the anthem.

Parks are clearly a powerful symbol, yet one that runs the risk of social irrelevance, as Parks Canada hives off remote parts of the Canadian wilderness from the advances of modernity. Whatever the ecological arguments for protection and purity, national parks can't justify their existence through majestic aloofness. At some point they have to turn on the charm and connect with the people who ultimately pay the bills.

That's the thinking behind another new project, the Blue Jays and Parks Canada Campout to be held May 21 in Toronto's Rogers Centre. "Again," says Mr. Kent, "this is about trying to bring awareness of Parks Canada and our great natural experience to the heart of the Canadian metropolis - to give 500 kids a chance to camp out under the biggest tent in Canada."

In a way, this attempt at outreach - which also includes a learn-to-camp event held in major Canadian cities next month - reconnects Parks Canada with the idealistic principles of its founders. Their goal was to provide city-dwellers with an escape from the unhealthy conditions of urban life, to make people better both physically and intellectually through the beauty of nature.

Perhaps they were too successful in promoting their ideals, or their parks were too accessible thanks to the railroad networks and highways that supplied visitors to the parks' hotels.

By the 1970s, the system was under stress, particularly in the showcase locations like Banff and Lake Louise. The human intruders became the bad guys, the unnatural element in Canada's natural heritage.

More recently, Parks Canada officials, their political masters and representatives of the tourism industry have looked for ways to brings the human element back into play. But no one's going to build more golf courses, ski hills and chateau-style hotels. In the parks that court visitors, recreation activities are of the eco-friendly variety: zip-lining, canopy walks, trail biking. "It's about accessibility with as low an impact as possible," says Mr. Kent.

The newly enlarged Grasslands Park in southern Saskatchewan incorporates bike trails alongside a restored herd of bison - and adds signs warning bikers that bison can reach speeds of 48 kilometres an hour. "There are many lessons in nature," says Mr. Kent. "Don't attempt to outrace the bison."

Purists will scoff: Why does nature have to bend to the human need for distraction? Why can't a tree simply be a tree and not a prop in some urbanite's adventure holiday? But the more pristine parks like the ever-expanding Nahanni in the Northwest Territories also exist for those who want them - and can get to them.

"Nahanni's not accessible to the multitudes," says Mr. Kent, "but for those who want to go there and make it an eventual pilgrimage, well I think a good many Canadians could do that."

So the ideal of the Parks Canada experience may be the once-in-a-lifetime trip to a remote destination like Nahanni. But what about the everyday adventuring, the normalization of nature promised by the centennial outreach projects? That's the more challenging side of the Parks Canada mission, but one that may soon be realized with the proposed Rouge River Valley Park on the eastern edge of Toronto - the country's first urban national park, where a gridlocked highway becomes a back-to-nature experience and zip-lining is just a short commute away.

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