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Parks Canada focused more on tourism than conservation, new report finds

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Parks Canada is more focused on tourism than conservation, according to a recent report from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

Alison Woodley, author of the report and national director of the parks program at CPAWS, told reporters that there’s been a dramatic shift in how Parks Canada is managing our national parks, which is “often at the expense of the nature [they] are supposed to protect.”

The report, which was released on Monday, claims that the number of Parks Canada staff dedicated to conservation work has shrunk by 31 percent since 2012. The number of staff involved in visitor experience, however, has grown by 9 percent. Due to a combination of budget cuts and increased spending on tourism development, Parks Canada spent less than 13 percent of their overall budget on conservation—less than half of what they spent on visitor experience.

Woodley says that if Parks Canada continues to shift its focus away from conservation, the wilderness the agency is mandated to protect will be “whittled away,” and we will fail “on our commitment to pass along our national parks unimpaired to future generations.”

In the report, CPAWS cites a number of examples where they say Parks Canada failed its mandate, including the approval of a massive expansion of the Lake Louise ski resort in Banff National Park and concept approval for commercial accommodations at Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. The first “requires removing land from legally protected wilderness to accommodate the demands of a private business,” while the second is prohibited by the park’s management plan.

The group is also critical of the $66-million that’s been committed to a paved bike path in Jasper.

Frédérique Tsaï-Klassen, a spokesperson for the Minister of Environment, told The Globe and Mail that the path has been imagined as an “environmentally friendly, world-class and multi-use recreational trail” that would avoid untouched wilderness areas. But according to reports, it would run right through endangered grizzly and caribou habitat.

Woodley told The Globe that Parks Canada’s own reports have shown that Canadians value unspoiled nature and wildlife in their parks above all else. Unfortunately, the agency is making these decisions without the public’s input.

“We’ve seen a real demise in the openness and transparency of decision-making in our national parks over the past decade. So that really, in many cases, the public consultations about development proposals have been really more of a sham,” she told CBC News.

According to the Canadian National Parks Act, Parks Canada is required to table a report summarizing the state of the national parks system every two years. The last time this was done was in 2011, and the results were far from ideal.

The 2011 report said that less than half of the park ecosystems are in good condition, while a third of them are declining. Another 41 percent of the park ecosystems hadn’t been assessed at all, Woodley said.

In an email, the environment minister’s office told CBC that they need to continue to develop new programs and services that will draw Canadians—particularly youth and newcomers—to the outdoors, where they can learn about the environment.

Still, they do recognize that the report raises some important issues and they’ll be reviewing its recommendations in a roundtable this fall. Stakeholders attending the roundtable will be given the opportunity to question the environment minister and Parks Canada’s officials on various issues, including the increased development of our national parks.

“It’s really about making sure that we don’t love our national parks to death,” Woodley told CBC. “There are some parks that are overwhelmed with visitors and can’t really sustain any more infrastructure development,” she said. “We don’t all have to go to Banff at the same time.”