The federal agency that manages Canada's national parks has reduced both public input and scientific research in its decision-making process and is allowing more development in places where fragile ecosystems need protection, says a new report by the country's leading parks watchdog.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's (CPAWS) annual assessment of the state of Canada's more than 40 national parks, which will be released on Monday, is strongly critical of the approach taken by Parks Canada during the years the Conservatives were in power in Ottawa.
And, although it applauds the Liberal government's commitment to science-based policy, it laments a multimillion-dollar bike trail that the Liberals have promised, without public consultation, to pave through Jasper National Park – a project that CPAWS says will disturb environmentally sensitive caribou and grizzly habitats.
"We've see a dramatic shift over almost a decade in how Parks Canada is managing our national parks," said Alison Woodley, the national director of CPAWS's parks program and the author of the new report, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail. "We've seen it shift from a nature conservation focus to more of a development and marketing focus, and often at the expense of the nature that our national parks are supposed to protect."
The report says the number of staff at Parks Canada who are doing conservation work has shrunk by 31 per cent since 2012, while the number in the visitor experience program has grown by 9 per cent. And spending on conservation accounted for just 13 per cent of the agency's overall budget last year – less than half the amount spent on visitor experience.
Frédérique Tsaï-Klassen, a spokeswoman for Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Environment who is responsible for Parks Canada, said the report raises some important issues and the government will be thoroughly reviewing the recommendations.
Promises made by the Liberals during last year's election campaign to limit development and protect ecological integrity of our national parks "provide an opportunity to get back on track," said Ms. Woodley.
But, as things currently stand, the report says Parks Canada is making more closed-door decision with less regard for public engagement and the result has been development that "poses a serious threat to wildlife and wilderness."
The National Parks Act requires the agency to table a report in Parliament every two years that summarizes the state of the entire national parks system – but that hasn't happened since 2011. "The last public report said that less than half of park ecosystems are in good condition and a third of them are declining – 41 per cent of the park ecosystems hadn't been assessed," said Ms. Woodley.
In 2012, the Parks Canada Agency Act was amended to require the park management plans, which identify critical issues that need to be addressed, to be reviewed every 10 years instead of every five.
The CPAWS report praises two decisions made by Parks Canada since the Liberals came to power: Scrapping plans to construct a giant Mother Canada statue in Cape Breton Highlands National Park and strengthening the legislation to protect the ecological integrity of the Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto.
At the same time, it points to a number of concerns that have been raised for several years and have gone unaddressed. They are largely centred on the Rocky Mountain parks of Banff and Jasper which are among the oldest in Canada and also among the most visited.
CPAWS is asking the government to cancel a massive expansion of the Lake Louise Ski Resort in the Banff National Park and the development of a resort at the iconic Maligne Lake in Jasper. It also is asking for a commitment that development and the population caps in the town of Banff and other parks communities will not be expanded.
And it is asking for the Liberals to halt plans for a paved bike path in Jasper, which the report says "emerged with the surprise announcement" in the March budget that $66-million had been committed to the project.
Ms. Tsaï-Klassen said the path is envisioned as an "environmentally friendly, world-class and multiuse recreational trail" that will meet the needs of a variety of users, and that Parks Canada intends to consult with the public and conduct an environmental assessment throughout this fiscal year. The trail will avoid wilderness zones and make use of existing disturbed areas, she said.
But Ms. Woodley said the project is a big problem "because Parks Canada clearly put forward this development before any public discussion, before any environmental assessment was done," said Ms. Woodley. "So we are hopeful that they will do the right thing and stop it and reinvest that funding in conservation."
Canadians care deeply about their national parks and Parks Canada's own reports show that Canadians value unspoiled nature and wildlife in their parks above all else, said Ms. Woodley.
"So we need to make sure that Parks Canada refocuses on this primary mandate of preserving nature or we are going to be the last generation that can really enjoy seeing grizzly bears and caribou and these sensitive wildlife species that rely on wilderness in our national parks," she said. "We do need to make sure that we don't love our national parks to death."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had incorrect information in a photograph cutline. This is a corrected version.