Parks Canada struggling to protect national parks

By: Cathy Ellis

  |  Posted: Thursday, Nov 07, 2013 06:00 am

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Many of Canada’s national park ecosystems are in decline and Parks Canada’s large backlog of work and big budget cuts threaten to deteriorate ecological integrity even further, according to a federal environment watchdog.

An independent audit of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, which was tabled in parliament Tuesday (Nov. 5), concluded that while Parks Canada is meeting many of its key responsibilities, it is struggling to protect ecosystems.

The audit found the federal agency tasked with protecting national parks has yet to assess the condition of 41 per cent of park ecosystems, while a third of those that have been assessed are in decline.

Parks Canada has developed a solid framework of policies, directives and guidelines for ecological integrity but, according to the report, has failed to establish a scientifically credible monitoring and reporting system.

A 23 per cent decrease in overall staffing for conservation is contributing to the problem. The number of scientific staff positions has decreased by more than a third, by 60 to 119.

“Despite Parks Canada’s significant efforts in many areas, the agency is struggling to protect ecosystems in Canada’s parks,” said Neil Maxwell, interim commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development.

“Given increasing threats to park ecosystems and the challenges Parks Canada faces, the agency needs to clearly map out how it will avoid falling further behind in its efforts to protect ecological integrity.”

The massive nine-chapter audit included one chapter specifically on whether Parks Canada is fulfilling its key legislated responsibilities in maintaining and restoring ecological integrity in national parks.

A six-member audit team examined nine national parks, including Banff and Kootenay. Prince Edward Island, Fundy, La Mauricie, Thousands Islands, Point Pelee, Riding Mountain and Pacific Rim were also considered.

The audit found Parks Canada has a significant backlog of unfinished work.

For example, it did not meet its own targets for maintaining ecosystems through prescribed burns and active management of fire and is frequently behind schedule in producing state of the park reports and management plans.

Of note, Parks Canada has not met its 2009 target to put in place a scientifically credible monitoring system to report on ecological integrity and, as a result, the agency does not have a complete picture of the state of parks.

Scientifically credible and up-to-date information on the condition of ecosystems is essential in making informed decisions and to understand and counter any threats to ecological integrity.

The audit also concluded Parks Canada has failed to clarify how and when it intends to clear the backlog of unfinished work, particularly given fewer financial resources and scientific capacity.

The agency has also not spelled out how it intends to restore the integrity of ecosystems it knows are in decline as well as continue to address emerging threats to ecological integrity, such as climate change and invasive species.

“As a consequence, there is a significant risk that the agency could fall behind in its efforts to maintain or restore ecological integrity in Canada’s national parks,” said Maxwell.

Parks Canada failed to grant the Rocky Mountain Outlook an interview request and instead provided a written email statement that did not address many of the audit’s findings.

“Parks Canada is proud the commissioner has concluded that it “is fulfilling its key responsibilities for maintaining or restoring ecological integrity in national parks”, which is the principal conservation obligation we have,” said spokesperson Geneviève Patenaude.

“The commissioner also stated that ‘the agency had carried out significant work in every area we examined’ and highlighted that ‘Parks Canada is recognized as a world leader in developing guidance on ecological integrity.’”

Conservationists say the independent report is a disturbing wakeup call, arguing it is clear that budget cuts have been so severe that national parks and wildlife are suffering.

They are calling on the federal government to reinstate funding for science and conservation staff at Parks Canada so ecological integrity of existing national parks and protected areas can be protected.

“Parks and protected areas are the building blocks of the Y2Y vision,” said Karsten Heuer, president of the Canmore-based Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative.

“Science tells us that we need to connect parks and protected areas. Our focus is on wildlife corridors and this report tells us that we can’t assume that Ottawa is looking after our wildlife and protected areas as they should.”

The audit found staffing in the science work stream was reduced by 33 per cent for 2013-2014, as 60 of 179 positions were eliminated.

“This exacerbates the impact of the reduction in the number of positions because seasonal staff work for only part of the year,” stated the audit.

When Parks Canada initially developed ecological monitoring programs for national parks in 2008, they allocated $42,000 per park in supplemental programming. That was later reduced to just $15,000 per park.

Heuer, who worked with Parks Canada for almost 18 years before his retirement last year, said more than a dozen people worked on ecological monitoring in the 1990s.

“When I left last year, I was basically one of two people trying to fulfill that same role over the same area,” he said. “We’ve heard a lot of about this government cutting back on science, cutting back on monitoring, and yet good science and monitoring provide us with knowledge to make good decisions to fulfill the mandate.”

The audit found Parks Canada carries out visitor activity and tourist development projects, such as summer use at Norquay, in accordance with its directives and guidelines, and considers the effects on ecological integrity.

But conservationists argue Parks Canada needs to do a better job of sticking to its legislated mandate of maintaining and improving ecological integrity as its first priority.

Heuer said there has been a recent trend within Parks Canada to increase visitor numbers and approve commercial attractions, noting the landscape surrounding national parks is under extreme pressure at the same time.

“With this emphasis on increasing visitation there’s very little concern for how that increase is adversely affecting the landscape and species and wildness that is supposed to be protected,” he said.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is calling on the federal government to invest an additional $40 million a year to protect ecological integrity of national parks.

“We need to ensure that the science and monitoring and conservation are top priorities, when considering the management of the park,” said Anne-Marie Syslak, executive director of the group’s southern Alberta chapter.

“Yet in recent years, drastic budget cuts have undermined Parks Canada’s ability to implement the science-based monitoring and conservation work required to ensure our national parks are protected now and forever.”


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