Parks Canada is breaking its own legislation and endangering the very ecosystems it is supposed to protect, according to a report from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
"What we've observed is a significant shift, over almost a decade, in how Parks Canada has been managing our national parks," said Alison Woodley, the national director of the parks program with CPAWS and author of the report.
"It's been a shift away from primary focus on nature conservation and towards more of a focus on marketing and infrastructure development, often at the expense of the nature our national parks are supposed to protect," Woodley added.
Tourists take in the views from the newly opened Glacier SkyWalk near the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park, Alta., in May 2014.(Photo: Jeff McIntosh/CP)
The report warned that if Parks Canada continues on this path, wildlife and wilderness will be "whittled away" and we will fail "on our commitment to pass along our national parks unimpaired to future generations."
Woodley's report, A Call for Renewed Commitment to Nature Conservation, highlights three instances where Parks Canada has, according to the author, failed in its mandate.
The first is Parks Canada's decision, just before the federal election, to approve "a massive expansion of the Lake Louise ski resort in Banff National Park," even though "it requires removing land from legally protected wilderness to accommodate the demands of a private business."
The second is a 2014 decision by the agency to grant concept approval for commercial accommodations at Maligne Lake in Alberta's Jasper National Park, even though it is prohibited by the park's management plan.
The third is a proposal for a $66-million bike path through Jasper that would run through endangered grizzly bear and caribou habitat, funding for which was provided in the 2016 budget.
Public consultations called a 'sham'
Woodley says there was no prior public discussion or environmental review for the bike path.
"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 said.
The report argues that Parks Canada is moving away from conservation efforts in favour of bolstering marketing initiatives to attract more visitors.
The report points out that when the agency's budget was cut in 2012, Parks Canada slashed its conservation work by 31 per cent but increased staff in the visitor experience program by nine per cent.
The report also says that under the Canadian National Parks Act, Parks Canada is required to release a report every two years about the state of the parks, yet the last one was tabled in 2011.
'Don't love our parks to death'
Woodley says the goal is not preventing people from enjoying the parks, but being smart about it.
"It's really about making sure that we don't love our national parks to death. 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."
Many of these development decisions happened under the previous Conservative government, but the money for the bike path in Jasper was approved in the new Liberal government's budget this spring.
"We are hopeful it will be seen as being incompatible with these commitments and that it will be stopped," Woodley said.
She also wants the federal environment minister to strike an external review committee to look at why Parks Canada is ignoring some of its own legislation.
The minister's office says it will review the recommendations in the report and that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna will hold her first ministers' roundtable this fall. Stakeholders attending the roundtable will be able to press the minister and Parks Canada officials on a range of issues, including development in Canada's national parks.
"The government is committed to preserving our national parks, expanding the system of protected places and contributing to the recovery of species at risk. At the same time, we must continue to develop new and innovative programs and services to enable more Canadians, including youth and newcomers, to experience the outdoors and learn about our environment," an email from the minister's office said.