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The Eclipse River runs through Torngat Mountains National Park. (H. Wittenborn/Parks Canada)
The Eclipse River runs through Torngat Mountains National Park. (H. Wittenborn/Parks Canada)

Environment

Rehabilitating our national parks Add to ...

Sunday is the Fourth of July, when Americans will celebrate their nationhood just as we did on Thursday. And while we like to think of our neighbours to the south as an obese lot who would rather chug Budweiser in front of the big screen than enjoy the great outdoors, you wouldn't know it from all the activity at their national parks.

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Buoyed by two high-profile visits by a vacationing family named Obama and a well-received TV series by award-winning documentary maker Ken Burns, attendance last year reached 285.5 million, almost one visit for everyone in the population and the highest tally in nearly a decade.

In 1883, railway workers hunting for rocks stumbled upon the hot springs that, two years later, would give rise to Canada's first national park.

Meanwhile, here in the land of the canoe and camper van - a country famous for its national parks since Banff became the first 125 years ago last month, the trend is the exact opposite. Canada's 42 parks haven't had so few visitors in more than 15 years.

The 11.9 million visits recorded last year represent a 22-per-cent drop from the 15.3 million logged in 1995. At the same time, Canada's population has risen almost 18 per cent. Some of the decline stems from the toll on travel, especially from the United States and abroad, taken by rising gasoline prices and the recession. But clearly, at a time when everything from the threat of urban sprawl to concern about climate change is supposed to have Canadians keenly interested in the state, and fate, of their environment, greater forces are at work.

The predicament has not escaped the notice of federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice, the cabinet minister responsible for Parks Canada. "These are the jewels of our country," he says of the parks, adding that the less people visit them, the less they will appreciate the beauty of the nation they inhabit.

By 1902, the Banff springs (lower basin shown) were famous and had been turned into a bathing destination for well-heeled visitors from near and far.

So the parks service has decided to face the problem head-on - after all, it is partly to blame. It took a quarter-century after the appearance of Banff National Park (which began as a 23-square-kilometre ring around some tiny hot springs), but on May 19, 1911, Canada established the world's first national parks service. Led by commissioner James Harkin, it considered getting Canadians out to the parks just as important as preserving the landscape.

"The national parks ensure," Mr. Harkin declared, "that every Canadian, by right of citizenship, will still have free access to vast areas possessing some of the finest scenery in Canada, in which the beauty of the landscape is protected from profanation, the natural wild animals, plants and forests preserved, and the peace and solitude of primeval nature retained."

But in later years, the balance shifted, Mr. Prentice explains. "For a period of time, there was a kind of emphasis on, to put it in graphic terms, protecting our national parks from Canadians, as opposed to protecting our national parks for Canadians."

In 1964, the first comprehensive statement of national parks policy tabled in the House of Commons established that the preservation of significant natural features was to be the park service's "most fundamental and important obligation."

That overarching philosophy remained in place for decades. But, in recent years, Parks Canada has come to see attendance as vital to its conservation efforts.

"Visitorship is important because we need a population that loves the national parks, that supports the national parks, that are motivated by a desire to protect and enhance them," Mr. Prentice says.

It's a desire that may be in doubt.

Although the Environment Minister says members of his generation can recall with joy the first time they went on a camping trip, fewer kids today share those memories.

In an increasingly urbanized society, with many people choosing to spend their leisure time at home, going out in the woods to pitch a tent and roast s'mores no longer holds the appeal it once did.

"It happens less so today," Mr. Prentice says, compounded by the fact that new Canadians often "don't have the same experience with the outdoors, the same comfort with the outdoors."

Realizing that "we need to reach into a younger generation of Canadians who are more urbanized," Parks Canada got serious.

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