I love National Parks. To anyone who knows me, this would be the most obvious thing I could say about myself. Canadian and American National Parks – I love ’em all. I’ve never been to one that I was disappointed with. Where else can I go where I can feel engaged both civically and naturally, connected not only the idea of Canada and America as national entities and what they stand for, but lose myself in the natural splendor that are our natural spaces?
I did a MA that focused on competing conceptions of nature in North America since the 1960s, so I could go on. But I will skip the introduction to place vs. space that any of my fellow Geographers will surely wince at, and ease myself past anyone who would have stopped me already to ask just what the hell I mean by “natural spaces” when the concept of “nature” and what constitutes “natural spaces” can be so easily contested. To them I say another day – another article.
Today I want to talk about an article I came across last night in the Globe and Mail from Allan MacEachern, a history professor at the University of Western Ontario and the director of NiCHE, the Network in Canadian History and Environment. MacEachern wrote an article entitled ‘Nature within reach of Canadians’ in which he espouses the need for more National Parks to be located where the overwhelming majority of Canadians are living these days – i.e., in urban areas. In this case, it’s not that Mohammed cannot go to the mountain, so much as the mountains are too far away, and Mohammed and his partner work full time jobs and have a hard time coordinating their ten day a year vacations to go anywhere far from home.
So MacEachern’s idea, quite simply, is to take the mountain to Mohammed and his family. Or rather, designate the smaller, less impressive mountains near where Mohammed lives as National Parks so Mohammed and his brood can more easily access a National Park, regardless of the quality of the nature being set aside as a park.
I’ll leave this metaphor, although it has served me well so far. MacEachern used the example of Quttinirpaaq in Nunavut, one of our newest National Parks, as an example of Parks Canada fulfilling part of their mandate to set aside valuable natural spaces for preservation. But in terms of public enjoyment, Quttinirpaaq falls short, he feels. He argues that it costs roughly $30,000 to charter a return flight there and back to somewhere in Southern Canada, and last year Quttinirpaaq received a grand total of two visitors. If you contrast this with the millions of visitors Banff alone receives each year, you have some idea of the hugely varied natures and contexts of our National Parks.
MacEachern then argues that to continue to place our National Parks so far away from where the majority of Canadians live is to run the risk of alienating new Canadians and those who are born in urban areas and never have the opportunity to engage in the natural world. He writes that “it is no way for Parks Canada to instill in an increasingly urbanized Canada a love of our country’s nature, let alone to foster a constituency that cares about national parks.”
True, but his cure is worse than the disease.
MacEachern then picks up on an election pledge made by Stephen Harper when in Toronto during the campaign where Harper promised to turn Rouge Valley Park – currently a municipal park on the border between Scarborough and Pickering – into a fully fledged National Park.
For starters, I have nothing against Rouge Valley park. It is a lovely municipal park. I have hiked through there on many occasions, and my favourite way to experience it is to wander along the Rouge River when it was frozen over in winter and follow it down towards Lake Ontario in the distance. It has fine amenities like hiking and biking trails, and, as MacEachern points out, is easily accessible by public transit and by car. How accessible? The TTC will drop you off at a trailhead, which is amazing! And, note in the top right hand corner of this image, both Highway 2 and Highway 401 run adjacent to and on top of, portions of the park. And don’t forget the municipal housing developments that abut the Park.
But should this lovely municipal park be turned into a National Park to share the stage with Banff, Gros Morne (which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site!), Jasper, or Wood Buffalo, to name a few? In my opinion, absolutely not. And here is where I fundamentally disagree with MacEachern: the ease with which the public is able to utilize a National Park should NOT be the primary driving force behind a Park’s creation. Preservation must always trump public enjoyment, although it is public enjoyment that helps pay for preservation.
If the public can make easy use of it, that is a tremendous bonus. But we run the risk of cheapening what a Park means, and what it stands for, if we lower the bar for entry as a NP. By adding to the existing structure of National Parks, we should not weaken the entire lot by lessening what it means to have the honour of being a National Park.
Rouge Valley already offers a wide array of amenities, and it is free for the public to come and make use of the river, the hiking and biking trails, the picnic areas and BBQ’s, and the ecology itself. Making this a National Park would add little to the park that does not already exist, except for entry fees and headaches for the municipal, provincial, and federal land agents who must navigate that labyrinth of bureaucracy required for re-zoning.
I do agree with MacEachern when he says that “Rouge Valley National Park will also signal a recognition that while the national parks system has ecological objectives, it also has social objectives.” But I disagree with him that in order to meet those social objectives we must make it easier for people to visit parks by making more parks closer to where people live.
This is completely backwards, and anathema to what Parks can and should stand for. Some things are worth traveling for, and the journey enriches the experience. Our National Parks included.