Nearly half of national park ecosystems rate as 'fair' or 'poor' in Parks Canada report
Rating an improvement from 2011, but impact of more visitors on parks a concern
A federal report by Parks Canada shows that almost half of the ecosystems in the country's national parks remain in fair to poor condition, five years after a previous report with similar concerns.
The report, called State of Canada's Natural and Cultural Heritage Places, was tabled in the House of Commons in mid-December.
It contains a table rating the condition of forests, freshwater lakes, wetlands and coastal areas in all national parks across the country.
The report finds that 29 of the 41 national parks and reserves measured had at least one ecosystem rated as fair or poor. Twelve of the parks or reserves had all of the areas measured rated as good.
Banff, Canada's first national park, has its forests, fresh water and tundra all listed as fair, with no sign of improvement.
At the same time, the number of visitors reached almost four million in 2015-16, which the report says is higher than previous years.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society does its own assessment of federal parks every year.
It reviewed the chart in Parks Canada's report and said it showed 46 per cent of park ecosystems are in fair to poor condition. That is an improvement from 2011, when 54 per cent of park ecosystems were rated fair or poor.
But the group's national director is still worried about some regions.
"We are particularly concerned right now about the Rocky Mountain parks. Visitation in those parks is through the roof. There are enormous development pressures going on in those parks from commercial development, other development inside, and they just can't sustain any more development," said Alison Woodley.
Under its legislation, Parks Canada is supposed to release a report on the state of federal parks every two years.
The last one was tabled in 2011.
And this current report does not contain much detail on why some parks received a good rating and others did not.
"It's the first step. The first step back to transparency. What we do need to see is to have all of the state of parks reports for each national park posted online. They haven't been posted online and we don't even know if they've been done since probably 2012," Woodley said.
"So again, step one getting this report out. Now we need to see what's behind that dashboard to be better able to understand what's going on better."
Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says protecting national parks is part of her mandate, as is limiting development within them.
"When you look at the different parks, obviously each park is different, but a focus on stewardship and conservation is really important, back to the principle of maintaining ecological integrity of parks," McKenna said while in Calgary for a cabinet retreat this week.
National parks free this year
This assessment of the national parks comes as the federal government waives visitors' fees for Canada's 150th anniversary year and expects even more visitors as a result.
McKenna said so far 3.4 million Canadians have applied for a free "discovery pass" for the year.
"It's a really good problem to have that we're going to have a lot of visitors, Canadian and international visitors, to our parks," McKenna said. "But of course there are some parks that will have a significant increase, so we need to be working, as we are, with all parks and historic sites, to make sure that we have a plan to address the increase in visitors," she added.
Woodley is more concerned about the impact of more visitors.
"Parks Canada needs the capacity to have people on the ground, to talk to Canadians as they enter our parks, to make sure they understand their responsibility [in] stewarding our parks and how they need to interact with wildlife, to avoid some of the problems we saw last year in Banff, where wildlife were actually being killed because of bad human/wildlife conflict situations," Woodley said.
McKenna asking for public input
Canadians currently have an opportunity to tell the minister directly what they want done with federal parks.
McKenna has been holding in-person and online consultations with stakeholders and the general public. The consultations wrap up Friday.
More than 1,700 people have submitted comments, many of them urging the minister to put nature before development.
Woodley isn't surprised.
"I think it's important for this government to understand Canadians do love our national parks. They are one of our top symbols of national identity.
"But they love them because they're natural. Because they're wild spaces that are places where wildlife can live and where there's pristine natural beauty," Woodley said.