From the caribou breeding grounds in the Northwest Territories to the diverse forests of New Brunswick, the country's leading wilderness advocate says the integrity of Canada's parks is being threatened by budget cuts, human activity and, especially, resource extraction.
A copy of the annual report of the Canada Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which will be released Monday, was obtained by The Globe and Mail. It says the past year has seen governments loosen restrictions that protect parks from development, and drag their feet on conservation promises.
"Over all, we're concluding that we're losing ground on parks," said Alison Woodley, the national director of CPAWS parks program in an interview. "We're really calling on governments to recognize the true value of parks to nature, to the economy and to people's health and well-being."
Leading CPAW's list of government decisions that could negatively affect wilderness areas were changes made in March to the British Columbia Parks Act. They allow industrial research in B.C.'s parks and make it easier to adjust parks boundaries for pipelines and other development.
The B.C. government says it is simply authorizing research to gain a better understanding of the effects of human activity. And the research permits are issued only for low-impact activities like soil sampling or installing gauges, said Dave Crebo, a spokesman for the province's Ministry of Environment.
But Ms. Woodley says the changes are "a big problem and undermine the fundamental principle that parks are to be protected from industrial development forever."
The CPAWS report also points out that funding of $391-million over five years that was announced for Parks Canada in the 2014 federal budget will not be used to support science and other conservation activities, and most of it will not begin to flow until 2016 and beyond. And a report this weekend by the Toronto Star said Parks Canada is on pace to cut more than $27-million from its planned spending of $659.7-million this year.
Ted Laking, a spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, said the Conservative government is making record investments to expand and protect Canada's national parks.
"In addition to our ongoing investments, this government also made a significant one-time investment to deliver long-term improvements to Parks Canada infrastructure," said Mr. Laking. "We will continue to support and invest in our national parks so that Canadians can enjoy our country's natural heritage."
But the CPAWS report said the consequences of the budget cuts have been shortened visitor seasons, reduced services, and a one-third reduction in Parks Canada's science capacity.
Among the other bad news for parks highlighted in the CPAWS report:
The New Brunswick government agreed this spring to open areas previously conserved for wildlife and water to increased logging;
Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories, and a proposed adjacent park called the Naats'ihch'oh that would protect the Nahanni's headwaters, are being threatened by industrial development. In the case of the Naats'ihch'oh, the park boundaries would exclude critical breeding grounds for mountain caribou and other iconic species.
The delays and uncertainties
There seems to have been an overall reluctance on the part of governments to more forward with park creation and wildlife conservation over the past year, said Ms. Woodley.
"That's something that we have noted even more this year," she said, "and that's really short-sighted because there is overwhelming evidence now that parks are great for the environment but they are also great for the economy and for people."
Among the uncertainties, CPAWS points out that the federal government's plan for the Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto requires only that the health of the park's ecosystems be taken "into consideration," and does not prioritize conservation.
Positive moves highlighted in the CPAWS report include the fact that a protective buffer zone around Gros Morne National Park is being considered. The park is a World Heritage Site on the west coast of Newfoundland near proposed fracking and oil drilling.
– Manitoba has started consultation on a large new provincial park on the shore of Hudson Bay that would provide a critical denning area for polar bears;
– Parks Canada and the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nations have reached a draft agreement for the establishment of the Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories that would protect more than 30,000 square kilometres of wilderness around the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story in print and online incorrectly said a buffer zone has been established around Gros Morne National Park. In fact, it is being considered.