The Road to Reason

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, June 6, 2001
Those who thought that the debate over the future of Canada’s national parks only concerned tourism development in popular areas such as Jasper and Banff should turn their eyes north. Parks Canada has just made a controversial decision that has environmental groups such as the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), and the Jasper Environmental Association (JEA) up in arms. After years of public consultation, two Parks Canada studies (including a 251 page environmental assessment), and the advice of three separate government agencies, Parks Canada finally gave the go-ahead to the construction of a 118 km winter snow road through Wood Buffalo National Park.

The new winter road is to be constructed from snow and ice, not concrete or asphalt, and it will be open only from November to March. The limited traffic is anticipated to be about twenty private light vehicles a day. No commercial haulers will be allowed.

This is hardly the heavy tourist traffic that some of Alberta’s more popular parks regularly see. The road’s proponents seek to connect remote northern communities such as Fort Smith to their friends and relatives southwest of the park -- and to make their access to Edmonton much easier. Rather than spawning a new tourist boom in the area, this limited transportation corridor promises to improve both the standard of living and quality of life of the people living in these isolated communities.

Environmentalists in the AWA, CPAWS and the JEA have collectively opposed the proposal ever since it was first brought for review, some two years ago. Ultimately, opposition to the road is more ideological than ecological. As Jill Seaton of the Jasper Environmental Society bluntly declared, “Roads are incompatible with wilderness.”

But if an appeal to “wilderness values” is not sufficient to direct public sentiment against the road, these groups also allege that it would compromise Canada’s legal duty to “ecological integrity,” or EI. According to this interpretation of EI, any corridor made for man, not wildlife, has no place in (or even adjacent to) a national park.

The fact is, the environmental impacts of this road are minimal. Opponents of the road cite their concern for migratory birds that live in the park for a few months each summer. But the road isn’t used during the summer. Even then, whooping cranes nest 100 km away; peregrine falcons (the same species that build nests in downtown Calgary office towers) nest high in cliffs some 10 km from the proposed road.

And as if there was not enough red tape to cut through, opponents are not satisfied with the environmental assessment that the winter snow road passed. According to disgruntled environmentalists, the cumulative effects of an all-season access road – of which Parks Canada has no plans to build – should have been factored into the original assessment.

Wood Buffalo is hardly comparable to Banff National Park. Despite being Canada’s largest national park (44,807 square km), Wood Buffalo sees scarcely 4,000 visitors a year (as opposed to the four-plus million visitors who flock to the 6,641 square km of Banff). There is little cause to worry that the winter road will lead to urban sprawl or a sudden influx of tourists. While two towns do border the park, Fort Chipewyan has a population of 1,200; Fort Smith 2,500. In any case, a combination of severe cold (minus forty degree temperatures), lack of winter facilities, services or programs makes the roadless park very inhospitable to those who aren’t young, hardy, and agile.

In and around national park communities throughout the country, from Fort Smith, to Canmore or Waskesiu, frustrations are the same: their autonomy and their right to exist are being challenged as activist interpretations of the original National Parks Act are being used to shut people out of Canada’s national parks.

Last March a federal task force appointed to assess the ecological health of Canada’s national parks concluded in direct contradiction to the words of the act, that the original National Parks Act included “no dual mandate” for both human use and environmental protection. Rather, “ecological integrity” was said to be the one and only goal. Recent amendments (proclaimed in February) have turned this principle into a proactive mandate for preserving and restoring areas brought under the jurisdiction of a reinvigorated Parks Canada Agency.

Canadians care about protecting their parks and wilderness. An activist few, however, insist that protection means preserving, restoring or “rewilding” Canada’s parks into a pristine state unknown since the last ice age. If Canada’s national parks are meant to be places for people and nature, then Parks Canada must return to a policy of prudence and balance. The approval of the Wood Buffalo snow road is a step in the right direction.

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