Tuktut Nogait National Park reported a 50-per-cent drop in visitors last year: Only two tourists made the trip, down from four the previous year. The rolling tundra and clear rivers offer solitude and adventure, but are also 170 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories and can only be reached by float plane or boat.
Contrast one of the most remote national parks in the country to the next jewel to be added to our national collection – the proposed Rouge National Urban Park in the Greater Toronto Area, which is accessible by public transit: nature within easy reach of 7 million people. It is estimated it will take $100-million over 10 years to build new facilities and run the park, a strip of forest and marshland along a river that forms the eastern boundary of Toronto in the former borough of Scarborough.
This is a challenging time for Parks Canada, as it reaches out to urban Canadians, deals with significant budget cuts and criticism that the path it has chosen could make it harder to protect fragile ecosystems.
Attendance is in steady decline at national parks across Canada, and money is tight. But the government is, nonetheless, pushing forward with the new, urban park as a way to introduce millions of Canadians to the parks system and help nurture a relationship it hopes will encourage them to explore further afield, who knows, perhaps all the way to Tuktut Nogait.
How do you attract more visitors with less money? Senior managers at the federal agency say they hope to implement the reductions in ways that won't deter millions of Canadians from coming to camp, paddle, hike or otherwise enjoy their national parks this summer. But there is a trade-off. Many of the scientists and technical staff hired over the last decade to help protect the ecological integrity, or health, of the parks, are being let go. This has experts worried about the future.
"We think that cuts to the scientific capacity within national parks will wind back the clock to a time when we really didn't understand parks and didn't know how to manage them," said Luise Hermanutz, a conservation biologist at Memorial University in Newfoundland.
There has always been an inherent conflict in the mandate of the national parks, which are dedicated to the people of Canada "for their benefit, education and enjoyment," but must also be maintained "so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
The National Parks Act was amended in 2000 to declare that maintaining or restoring ecological integrity is the "first priority" of the minister, said Dr. Hermanutz. That change prompted the government to hire many of the scientists it is now letting go, a move one critic has described as a "lobotomy" of the parks system.
Parks that get fewer visitors are feeling the cuts more keenly, says George Mercer, who recently retired from his job as an ecologist at the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, a short boat ride from Vancouver or Victoria. Instead of five scientists, he says the park will now have one full-time person working to monitor, protect and restore ecosystems, including a project to remove logging debris left in a stream.
The scientists that were hired early in the 2000s, were given the task of developing monitoring programs and appropriate protocols for restoring ecosystems, said Bill Fisher, vice-president of operations for Western & Northern Canada.
"They've put a base down that is going to be wonderful," he said in an interview. "But now we are moving into another phase of the work."
It total, 638 positions are being eliminated, but the details have not been released.
About 30 per cent of the $29-million was cut from the operations budget, said Mr. Fisher, and most of the related changes in staffing and programming will occur in the shoulder seasons or in winter.
The rest of the cuts, 70 per cent, will affect scientists and social scientists, as well as the people that curate and conserve artifacts and collections or who are involved in planning and public consultations, said Mr. Fisher. Programs to introduce people, including new Canadians, to camping in the parks will remain.
Vacation choices are changing and fewer families are piling into their station wagon for a two-week camping trip. In 1995, 15.3 million Canadians visited a national park, compared to only 12.5 million last year. A day trip to an urban park may be a good way to draw people in, Mr. Fisher said.
"This is going to be a huge opportunity for Parks Canada."
The government has not yet set aside any money. But there have been talks on the transfer of land from the current property holders and discussions are starting on the type of programming that will be offered.
He hopes it will offer millions of people the kind of experiences he has had in parks across the country.
"I'm fortunate. I've travelled to national parks in Newfoundland, Ontario and B.C. Most people don't get the chance to go on those sorts of trips.''
It's not yet national in stature yet, but hundreds of people are expected to enjoy the greenery of the Rouge Park this holiday weekend. No visitors, however, are expected in Tuktut Nogait.
Parks Canada by the numbers
Founded: 1911, as Dominion Parks Branch – the first national parks service in the world
Marine Conservation Areas: 4
Historic Sites: 167
Oldest: Banff (Alberta), 1885
Newest: Sable Island (Nova Scotia), designated 2011
Proposed: Rouge National Urban Park (Ontario)
Smallest: St. Lawrence Islands (Ontario), 8.7-square kilometres
Biggest: Wood Buffalo (Alberta and Northwest Territories), 44,807 square kilometres
Attendance: The mountain parks attract the crowds - the northern parks, not so much, according to attendance numbers from 2010-2011.
Aulavik (Northwest Territories) 12
Sirmilik (Nunavut) 21
Source: Parks Canada