The UNESCO World Heritage Committee says Gros Morne National Park on Newfoundland's west coast is a rare example of continental drift where ocean crust lies exposed amid spectacular fjords, glacial valleys, sheer cliffs, waterfalls and pristine lakes.
But Gros Morne is also at the top of a list of parks that the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) declares, in its annual report to be released Monday, to be at risk as a result of poor conservation strategies, a lack of fiscal resources, encroaching development or a combination of threats.
In the case of Gros Morne, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, CPAWS is concerned about a proposal by a junior exploration company to drill and frack for oil within metres of the park's boundary. It is calling on the area around the park to be kept permanently free of oil and gas development to protect both the ecosystems and the tourism economy.
"If this were to go ahead," said Alison Woodley, the national director of the CPAWS parks program, "it would be the start of industrializing that coastline and that's just not appropriate in an area that was protected and actually designated a World Heritage Site, both for its geological values but also for its pristine natural beauty."
The CPAWS report offered a mixed assessment of the state of Canada's national and provincial parks. While it cites major progress in 2013, especially at the provincial level where Quebec has established the largest protected area in eastern North America and Nova Scotia has announced plans to create hundreds of new parks, there are problem areas.
The report says the resource proposal by Shoal Point Energy Ltd. and Black Spruce Exploration to look for oil in an enclave surrounded by the park poses a number of potential threats.
The fracking process, it says, will mean the injection of toxic chemicals deep into the ground which could lead to groundwater contamination. The report also expresses concern about intense trucking activities on park roads, the production of massive amounts of contaminated water that needs to be disposed of, and the potential for flaring of natural gas.
David Murray, the president of Black Spruce, said in an e-mail that his company loves the park, and respects its natural beauty. Mr. Murray pointed out that there are other World Heritage Sites that have industrial development near their borders and said responsible shale oil development should not have any impact on Gros Morne's status.
Black Spruce, he said, will monitor the drinking water, will repair any damage caused by its trucks, and will meet or exceed all regulatory requirements. Responding to the concern about natural-gas flaring, he said there is little or no gas in the locations that will be explored for oil.
Here are some highlights from the 2013 annual report of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
- Quebec is creating the biggest provincial park in Canada and the largest protected area in eastern North America at the Tursujuq National Park Reserve;
- Nova Scotia plans to create hundreds of new parks and protected areas including 700 kilometres of wilderness coastline and critical habitat for species at risk;
- Manitoba has a new parks strategy that would strengthen protection for many of provincial parks, create new ones and expand others;
- Saskatchewan announced the creation of the Great Blue Heron Provincial Park, its first new provincial park in 20 years;
- Parks Canada will delay opening dates for backcountry skiing in a number of important winter caribou habitat areas in Jasper National Park
- Increasing the number of summer visitors to the Mount Norquay ski area in Banff from 300 to 10,000 annually could have a serious impact on grizzly bears and other wildlife;
- There have been cuts to science and monitoring at Canada’s national parks and many have reduced their hours and shortened their seasons as a result of budget cuts;
- A plan to develop a captive breeding and reintroduction program for caribou and bison at Banff National Park is on hold because of budget cuts;
- The ecological balance of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed, one of the world’s great remaining intact wilderness areas, is being threatened the territory’s proposal to open the entire region to mining and other resource-extraction activities.