Public Land, National Parks, and Conservation Priorities

The first national park in Canada was established in 1885. To put that in perspective, the toothbrush was invented the same year. That first park, Banff National Park, in Alberta, has an area of 6,641 square kilometres. Banff was the second national park in North America, after Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park is the second largest in the world at 44,807 square kilometres (second to Northeast Greenland National Park at a whopping 972,001 square kilometres).

Wood Buffalo National Park was created in 1922, specifically to protect the last free-range herd of wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). At a time when the bison was being driven rapidly towards extinction, Canadians took steps to protect them through the use of a national park. To this day, wood bison are threatened and that park is home to the largest wild herd in the world. That’s a hell of a legacy to create with our national parks. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) says that national parks are supposed to be the “gold standard for conservation in our country”.

Banff National Park.
Credit: Gorgo, Wikipedia.

National park land is owned by the federal government on behalf of Canadian citizens. The future of publicly owned land has been a hot topic in North America lately. In the United States, transfer of ownership in public land has been a recurring discussion, and the fate of public land was certainly an important 2016 American election item for hunters and outdoors people. In Canada, we have a long history of publicly owned land, or to be more precise, land owned by the representative of the Crown (of England) and held in trust for the public. The Crown is represented by the federal and provincial governments in Canada. In terms of public land, government held, publicly owned land is referred to as Crown land. Usually, when Canadians talk about Crown land, we are referring to that majority of public land in the provinces that is owned by the provincial governments.

The Canadian Encyclopedia reports that roughly 89% of Canada is Crown land:  41% is federal Crown land and 48% is provincial Crown land. The three territories make up most of the federal Crown land: the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Among the provinces, the amount of Crown land varies from 95% of land in Newfoundland to 85% of land in Ontario to less than 2% of land in Prince Edward Island. Some of these expansive swaths of land are open to the public for general use while others are held for economic development, such as mining and forestry. For example, in Ontario, about 10% of Crown land is managed as parks and conservation reserves. The remaining 77% of Crown land is managed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and this is the land that would be open for free public use for activities such as camping and hunting. For example, Canadian residents are allowed to camp for free on Crown land in Ontario for up to 21 days.

Liard Wood Bison, Near Coal River, British Columbia

In terms of federal Crown land that would be considered public land for the purposes of this discussion, most of this is in the form of national parks. Parks Canada, the main federal agency responsible for park planning and management, lists 46 national parks, established between 1885 and 2015. At least every two years, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change is required to hold a Minister’s Round Table to examine Parks Canada’s management of national parks, and the public consultation period just concluded. From January 9-27, Canadians had the opportunity to submit comments to Minister Catherine McKenna expressing their priorities for national parks. Here’s the letter I submitted:

Dear Minister McKenna,

When people ask me what I love about Canada and what makes me proud to be Canadian, one of the first things I think of is the legacy in this country of celebrating and protecting natural and wild spaces. Canadian history is full of achievements related to protecting natural places and the wildlife that uses those places. As a result of having large tracts of protected and well managed habitats, many of those places in the form of National Parks, Canadians and visitors to Canada have been able to experience nature since the first National Park was created in 1885. Indeed, much of my own identity is intimately tied to the enjoyment of natural places and wildlife.

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Unfortunately, I’ve watched as Canada’s priorities with regards to our natural habitats and National Parks have shifted from conservation to tourism and development. Canada has continued to allow activities that have eroded the ecological integrity and well-being of our National Parks and has put their future well-being at risk. Expansions in development and an increasing focus on economic generation through tourism are not conducive to maintaining healthy and resilient habitats for wildlife. In turn, this shift in priority is an erosion of Canadian values and the legacy of so many hard working conservationists throughout Canada’s history.

In planning for the future of Canada’s National Parks, I encourage you to focus on the following priorities:

  1. Stop expanding the development footprint in our national parks, particularly in Banff and Jasper.
  2. Re-invest in science and ecological monitoring to guide park management.
  3. Focus Parks Canada’s visitor experience programs on nature-based education and stewardship.
  4. Create more new national parks and national marine conservation areas.

The North American model of wildlife management and conservation is a leading example for the rest of the world. Our model has protected critical habitat for hundreds of species, prevented the extinction of species such as the bison, and implemented groundbreaking conservation policies devoted to managing migratory wildlife, to name only a few of Canada’s distinguished accomplishments. At the root of these accomplishments is a dedication to managing habitats and wildlife based on the best available scientific and local knowledge. A focus on conservation must remain the foundation of our management strategy in Canada. We have both a legal and moral obligation to care for the well-being of the habitats and wildlife that together define an important part of our national identity.

My stake in all of this, and the foundation for why I submitted a letter is probably most simply boiled down to two main priorities, one being somewhat political and the other being more philosophical. First, I think it’s a great thing that we have so much publicly owned land in Canada and this land has come to be a big part of what many Canadians associate with our national identity (along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, health care, and the flag). Our federal and provincial governments have a legal mandate to manage this land responsibly and with a long-term vision for maintaining its ecological integrity. As Canadians, we have a duty to hold our governments to that responsibility and ensure they continue to prioritize the conservation of public land. Second, I value the idea of conservation and the value of nature and wild places beyond their potential for economic value. Hunting is not permitted in national parks (aside from particular areas open to Indigenous communities) so my desire to see healthy park ecosystems is not about simply protecting hunting privileges. No, it’s much more deeply ethical than that and has to do with the intrinsic and moral value in conserving wild places.

While held as an iconic symbol of Canadian geography and identity, the value of national parks was ever only partially dependent on their enjoyment by humans. National parks are first and foremost intended to protect biodiversity and this should continue to be their primary function. The world’s biodiversity has been in consistent decline for decades, due to a variety of factors including climate change and expanding human development. Protected areas – including national parks – have been a key strategy to protect biodiversity since the 1800s. In fact, the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has called for 17% of global land and 10% of seas to be protected by the year 2020. Despite protected areas covering 12.7% of global land and 1.6% of seas today, global biodiversity continues to decline.

In Canada, protection of our national parks is not strong enough. Parks Canada has reported that almost half of our national parks are in fair or poor condition. CPAWS reports that in 2016, more than one-third of ecosystems in Canadian national parks were in declining health. Wood Buffalo National Park – that island of hope for wood bison since 1922 – is at risk of being placed on the UNESCO “World Heritage in Danger” list because of the impact of upstream hydro and oil sands development. Numerous other developments have been approved in national parks, despite policies and regulations intended to limit development and its associated ecological impacts. Many of these developments are intended to increase tourism and the economic potential of parks, a goal that in principle does not seem so bad except that it has been happening at the expense of funding for conservation and scientific monitoring initiatives.

“As of 2009, Parks Canada’s vision makes no mention of nature conservation or ecological integrity despite this being the first priority by law for managing our national parks”.

– CPAWS, 2016

It’s no secret that environmental protection was not a strong priority of the previous federal government in Canada under Stephen Harper. This is hardly a controversial political statement. The Conservative Party’s own policy documents do not devote a great deal of space to environmental protection and there were countless budget cuts to environmental research and conservation programs under that government. For instance, the Conservatives watered down the requirements for public review of park management and removed the requirement for environmental assessments to be conducted on projects in national parks. In 2012, as a result of budget cuts, Parks Canada cut its conservation and science staff by 31%. At the same time, Parks Canada increased staffing in its visitor experience program by 9%.

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By 2015/2016, only 13% of Parks Canada’s spending was devoted to conservation. There’s a problem with these priorities.

Our public land and the ecosystems and wildlife it contains are far too valuable to be neglected or de-prioritized for economic development. There are also political considerations that need to be accounted for, such as the continued rights of Aboriginal communities to their traditional territories, much of which is now vast amounts of Crown land. Public land literally belongs to all Canadians and is meant to be held so that it benefits all Canadians. In my view, what is far more important than any right to the land are our responsibilities to it. We need to remember the legacy on this continent that began with a dedication to protecting ecosystems and the wood bison. Aldo Leopold called this dedication a “land ethic”. He said that the extension of ethics beyond our responsibilities to individuals and society, to the land, is “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity”.

A Hunter’s Perspective

I said that my desire to see large tracts of healthy ecosystems conserved is distinct from my desire to hunt. That remains true; however, there’s a larger picture to my perspective concerning human presence in protected areas that I think is relevant to the context of national parks and certainly the issue of public land protection.

When the concept of protected areas emerged in the latter half of the 19th century, it was defined by what is referred to as the “island approach” to habitat protection. From the 1870s to the 1980s, the approach to protected areas was to segment areas of land and manage them completely distinct from social needs and uses. More recent scholarly research has also found that protected area management that relies on human exclusion is both socially and ecologically ineffective. Although we can fence off protected areas, this does not insulate them from the impacts affecting the land around them or the social-ecological needs of human communities.

A 2016 study published in the journal Environmental Conservation specifically identified the disconnection between protected areas and society as a limitation of our current model of protected area management. The authors note that there is a danger in creating a duality between humans and nature that disconnects people from important ecosystem services such as hunting and gathering. There has been a paradigm shift in protected area management over the previous 30 years that departed from the “fences and fines” model that sought to exclude humans. By the 1990s-2000s, the dominant discourse moved towards a “landscape approach” and started to recognize that ecosystems don’t work as islands. We now recognize the importance of connected habitats, ecological buffer zones around sensitive areas, and the need to consider ecosystem functions.

Auyuittuq National Park in Nunavut, Canada.

It may be easy to lose perspective talking about how trends in protected area planning and management have evolved since the 1870s. If we go through human history over the last 10,000 years though, since the end of the Pleistocene, the idea that humans are conceptually and physically separable from the ecosystems around us is a foreign concept. In fact, over that same glacial time period, it’s a concept that is also foreign to the large suite of wildlife that humans have shared this continent with. Current thinking around protected areas acknowledges their role as complex social-ecological systems “characterized by a set of interactions among humans and between humans and biophysical components” of ecosystems.

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Humans and wildlife have evolved on this continent through important interactions defined by reverence, survival, predator-prey relationships, spiritual beliefs, competition, and symbiosis. The idea that we can and should separate these interactions is a distinctly modern cultural construct. Of course, some of the human-wildlife interactions have been devastating, but I don’t think these negative impacts have been a result of human connections with nature in and of themselves. Rather, the habitat destructions and species extinctions that have taken place especially over the last two centuries have in many cases been the result of a lack of understanding and knowledge (e.g. of ecological processes and the finite nature of wildlife populations). In other cases, human impacts on ecosystems and species have been a result of willful harm, but I don’t believe that segregation of humans and nature is the answer. It is possible to protect without excluding.

Therefore, I’ll complicate my previous statement about my desire to protect nature being distinct from my desire to hunt. Some of my most intensely personal interactions with wildlife and wild places have been thanks to my experiences hunting. There are just some levels of experiences that are unattainable through a purely observational interaction with nature. Eventually, to deepen our own understandings of nature, we need to be active participants in ecological processes. Active involvement in the processes and interactions that define wild places is a naturally human experience, despite our modern success in making that involvement unnecessary for our survival. But unnecessary doesn’t make it less valuable. Having said that, separating my desire to hunt from the intrinsic value I place on protecting wild places is only necessary if we accept a particular representation of hunting as invasive, intrusive, and disruptive – and I reject this representation.

Our idealized image of wildlife is often captured as the photo opportunities on the sides of roads in national parks. The existence of national parks is a great legacy of conservation on this continent and throughout the world; however, as with wildlife, humans also belong to these wild landscapes. In efforts to protect the wild nature of landscapes, it doesn’t have to be the goal to remove and exclude humans. Rather, our goal should be thoughtful, long-term, and effective management rooted in conservation. We need to cherish our public lands and recognize them for how valuable they truly are, and this value has nothing to do with the economic potential they hold.


I realize that this post might appear to be full of small contradictions: we should maintain a strong public lands and national parks system; I value protected ecosystems beyond their human uses; but then human exclusion from national parks is not my ideal vision for conservation; but then I don’t think we should be focusing on tourism and economic development within protected areas, but then I do think humans should be actively involved in the landscape. However, its the nuanced nature of each of these positions that makes them compatible.

Management of our national parks needs to be re-focused on conservation rather than increased tourism development. But we must learn to appreciate the intrinsic value of these places to convince governments. To draw again from Leopold, “a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided”. Leopold goes on to say, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”. In Leopold’s view, without this love and respect, there can be no effective land ethic: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in”. So our way forward with public land, national parks, and protected areas is to foster – in ourselves and society – a land ethic through seeing, feeling, understanding, and then coming to love these places.

4 Comments on “Public Land, National Parks, and Conservation Priorities

  1. Great post, I agree that our national parks need more work. Sadly the less the parks are visited the less funding and research goes into them. This shouldn’t be the case, but anyone in research and management knows that funding is the biggest component to species security,

    • Thanks a lot.
      I agree, I think people should continue to visit national parks and use public lands. I just think that tourism should be focused on nature experiences, not resort or amusement park kinds of development. There are so many non-intrusive opportunities for wildlife viewing and experiencing nature. I also find it troubling that we are seeing these kinds of large-scale developments in national parks, but they remain closed to hunting, which by all measures is less intrusive to natural processes.
      But yes, the public support needs to be there for funding to increase, and the public only supports funding for things they find personal value in, so personal experiences are key here.

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