Tatlayoko Lake Vista (Photo by Sally Meuller)
Canada's greatest contribution to sustaining our planet's biodiversity and ecological services may very well be our abundance. From some of the world's largest intact forests and wetlands, to wild northern rivers, to spectacles of bird and mammal migrations, Canada is one of only a handful of countries with true wilderness and wild spaces remaining.
Reflecting on our evolving relationship with this planet on Earth Day, it is clear that we need big protected wild places. And we need big protected wild places not just for nature, but to secure the quality of life for future generations.
Canadians have over a century of experience in creating and managing big protected areas. The results are impressive. Within six per cent of the planet's terrestrial real estate and with less than half a per cent of the world's population, Canada and Canadians own and manage one-quarter of the world's largest and best protected parks. These parks protect birds whose flight patterns stretch across the Americas, marine life that knows no boundaries and planetary cycles we all depend upon.
Some of the places Canadians have protected reflect our generous geography and our cultural kinship to wilderness. But many of our larger parks are difficult to access and unfortunately remain unknown, and uncelebrated, by Canadians. Parks so large they still contain wildlife that rarely encounters humans; parks so large that the ebb and flow of natural processes still continues. Parks that at over one million hectares (10,000 square kilometres) could each easily fit Prince Edward Island (5,660 square kilometres) or the Greater Toronto Area (7,124 square kilometres) within their boundaries.
Million-hectare parks, by the numbers
Million-hectare parks that meet international standards for protected areas are rare gems in a world where nature is fading. Globally, there are fewer than 125 land-based parks of this size that are officially recognized. The number drops to less than 80 if only parks with the most strict, long-term levels of protection are considered. The U.S. has only four parks measuring one million-plus-hectares, and they are all in Alaska (the Arctic Wildlife Refuge is the largest protected area in North America, but it does not have the same level of protection as Canada's largest parks).
Canada has 20 parks in the million-plus hectare league, representing only one-quarter of one per cent of all the parks and protected areas in Canada. (By comparison, over half of Canada's protected areas are under 200 hectares/494 acres.) However, these 20 parks make up 30 per cent of Canada's total area of parks and protected areas, and make a significant contribution towards Canada's goal and international commitment of protecting 17 per cent of our lands and inland waters by 2020.
Sometimes bigger is better
Waldron, AB (Photo by Kyle Marquardt)
Although size isn't everything when it comes to protected areas, scientists have long recognized the importance of large, intact nature reserves. While small nature reserves are still very much needed, and are critically important for protecting some species and habitats (especially in fragmented ecosystems), large protected areas are essential to conserve species that need lots of space and to sustain ecological processes. There is no magic number or ecological threshold on how big a park should be, but based on scientific evidence, at least 500,000 hectares is a size that seems to be sufficient to protect populations of most resident species and key ecological processes. Canada has 20 parks that are more than double this size.
Canadians have a long and rich history of creating protected areas with a global impact. Our largest parks have an ecology that influences the health of the planet, and a grandeur that sparks imagination, story and the Canadian identity. These are places that ensure our spring and autumn skies will be filled with waterfowl and shorebirds; places that moderate our climate and clean water; places where we can assure our children that wild and wilderness are still real.
These places are an impressive legacy, but a legacy that is incomplete. As Canadians we need to examine the conservation needs in other parts of our country to ensure all habitats are protected.
By nature of our geography and southern settlement, most of our biggest parks will be in the north, but there are still opportunities to create protected areas in our prairies and temperate forests.
Waterton, AB (Photo by Karol Dabbs)
Parks, even really big parks, don't function in isolation. Their health and conservation effectiveness are often as dependent on activities outside of park boundaries as they are on management inside the park. Many of Canada's parks need to be linked to ensure functional networks of protected areas. The Nature Conservancy of Canada has helped conserve many properties that are building these networks, including areas around Waterton Lakes National Park, Riding Mountain National Park, Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area and the Musquash Estuary Marine Protected Area.
Seizing the opportunity for conservation
Map by NCC
Canadians still have an opportunity for planet-changing conservation. We are one of the few countries left with large areas that CAN be protected. We are a generation that can endow a legacy of wildlife spectacles, natural abundance and much-needed ecological security of our planet's life-support systems.
How we build and manage our system of protected areas will have an impact on the next generations of Canadians and on the world. The fate of Canada's wild spaces will be one of our planet's greatest conservation success stories, or one of our planet's greatest conservation tragedies.
Meet Canada's 20 mega-parks and protected areas in this one million hectare park countdown.
This post originally appeared inLandLines, the blog of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook