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(Wendy Kitts for The Globe and Mail/Wendy Kitts for The Globe and Mail)
(Wendy Kitts for The Globe and Mail/Wendy Kitts for The Globe and Mail)

The 'Graveyard of the Atlantic' - reborn Add to ...

Ottawa will accept a recommendation Tuesday that would confer national park status on Sable Island, a crescent-shaped sandbar 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax. Nova Scotia will also accept the proposal, although there will be a public consultation period lasting until the fall. Just 41 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide, the island is renowned for its wild horses and history of shipwrecks, which earned it the nickname "Graveyard of the Atlantic." In January, Environment Minister Jim Prentice promised to protect the island permanently, as either a national park or a national wildlife area. Many worried that a national park designation would bring increased tourism and dangerous development to the fragile ecosystem. But Chris Miller of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said his organization supported the national park option because Parks Canada's mandate is to prioritize ecological integrity. "It's a special place," he said of Sable. "And we have to find the right balance between letting people experience that and protecting it in the long run."

Wild horses

A sanctuary for migratory birds, Sable Island is home to one of the country's largest tern populations and is the only place where the tiny Ipswich sparrow will nest. The birds aren't alone. The island boasts the world's largest grey seal colony; each year, approximately 50,000 pups are born on its beaches. But the most famous inhabitants are the Sable Island horses, a population of between 150 and 400 wild animals that were introduced to the island around 1738.

Tourism: boon or doom?

Until now, anyone who wanted to visit Sable Island needed a permit from the Canadian Coast Guard, which holds jurisdiction over the island under the Canada Shipping Act. Fewer than 100 people arrived on the island each year under the old system, because getting there isn't easy. Sable experiences up to 127 days of fog annually and can be reached only by chartered boat or plane. But interest from tourists has been increasing, Mr. Miller said, and a national park designation could boost the number who arrive on Sable's shores each year. Transforming the land into a national park could also require the addition of campgrounds and other facilities, so Mr. Miller hopes the park designation will come with a limit on the number of visitors allowed each year. "If too many people go there, you end up damaging the very thing that makes the place so magical," he said. "It's something that most Nova Scotians would want to see limited."

More parking spots

The country's first national park was established in Banff in 1885. In the 121 years that followed, Canada designated 277,000 square kilometres of land as national parks and marine conservation areas. In the last four years, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has established an additional 45,500 square kilometres of national parkland. Parks Canada has partnered with the Haida Nation to designate 3,500 square kilometres of the Queen Charlotte Islands as a national marine conservation area. Last year, 25,234 square kilometres was transferred to the Nahanni National Park Reserve, along with 5,560 square kilometres for the Saoyu-AEehdacho National Historic Site. And in January, the Environment Minister announced the creation of the 10,700-square-kilometre Mealy Mountains National Park in Labrador, bigger than Yellowstone National Park in the United States. In the U.S., only three national parks have been designated since 2000, and none since 2006. "I think it's a priority of Canadians," Mr. Miller said of protecting parkland. "Our identity is formed in large part by this landscape, this place where we live. And part of that is ensuring that this big wild country remains that way."

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