This month's column is titled "Think Big" and may challenge your views as to the usefulness and success of our North American National Park System.

Many of us think of Canada's national parks as sanctuaries for wildlife and places providing an opportunity to "get away from it all and renew ties with nature". Few realize our national parks may be in trouble and by the next century our national heritage may be reduced to a series of scenic postcards and shopping malls. While development within parks continues unabated, we continue to chip away at their borders with resource development, tourism and our need to be closer to nature. Compounding this problem, park boundaries were originally established for political reasons rather than to meet the conservation needs of large ranging wildlife species such as grizzly bear and wolf.

In his book "Mountains Without Handrails", Joseph Sax refers to the establishment of the American National Park system as a "quiet genesis" in which large areas of remote and scenic land were silently removed from the public domain in the latter part of the nineteenth century.1 Following the earlier writings of Emerson, Thoreau and later Muir, a period of romantic idealism swept through the United States, creating a "nostalgia for what was obviously the end of untamed wilderness, already in submission to the axe, the railroads, and the last campaign against the Indians". 2

Parks were never established with a thought for a conservation legacy in mind. The national park concept appealed to the nationalistic tendencies of the day and gave Americans something which Europeans could not compete with. Excepting the efforts of a few individuals, there was no concerted action either by government or the public to create the U.S. parks system. Although Yosemite was set aside in 1864, and Yellowstone later in 1872, it was not until 1916 that the U.S. Parks Service was established.

In Canada, our "Grand and Fabulous Notion" of a National Parks system grew out of commercial gain and the political need to establish a national railroad system. Banff National Park began as a tourist resort in which wealthy patrons were lured to the park's hot springs. William Van Horne, President of the Canadian Pacific Railroad declared - "if we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists". Banff was established in 1875 as Canada's first national park, followed by Yoho in 1901, Jasper in 1907 and Kootenay in 1920. In total a block of largely undeveloped land over 20,000 km2 was set aside, only to be reduced through land transfers to the Provinces in 1930.

In their fledgling days, our national parks were more a haven for the privileged than a place for the masses. Ironically, it was the opening of the parks to the automobile that led to their promotion to the public (at the same time as the Model T and mass marketing) and the beginnings of mass tourism development. Today over one million people live on the periphery of the Four Mountain Parks and nearly seven million visit the parks and surrounding lands each year.

In the years that have followed, Canada and the United States have created a system of protected areas with the intent of luring tourists rather than protecting natural ecosystems for eternity. In fact, our national parks are quickly becoming "postage stamps in a surrounding sea of development" in which their very survival is now in danger.

William D. Newmark recently examined extinction patterns of mammal populations in western North American National Parks and found two interesting things.3 Firstly, the number of extinctions has exceeded the number of colonizations (new species entering the park) and secondly the rate of extinction is inversely related to park area. What this means is that only the largest parks (e.g. the Banff-Yoho-Kootenay-Jasper complex) have a chance of perhaps retaining their initial complement of species into the next century. But even our Four Mountain National Parks have lost some species. In Banff, the longnose dace (a small fish) has gone extinct and other species, such as moose, are all but gone from the Bow Valley within the Park. For other species, such as grizzly bear, the prospect of future survival may lie in lands outside national parks rather than inside protected areas themselves.

Newmark sums up the potential future survival of North American parks by saying "it is highly dependent upon human activities and land-use practices adjacent to parks". In setting aside our national parks, with boundaries defined historically on political lines rather than ecological reality, we have allowed for largely uncontrolled external development. For example, in our own Rocky Mountains, tourism within national parks, combines with activities outside parks, including logging, mining, oil and gas, agriculture and yet more tourism, to threaten the integrity of these protected areas. Almost every valley along the western edge of the Rocky Mountains has been logged. Oil and gas activities extend to the periphery of our national parks and in the case of Waterton National Park, extraction of hydrocarbons has been carried out beneath the park boundary. Wolf populations, having reflourished in the protected cores of Banff, are now threatened with annihilation as they venture beyond park boundaries. Visitation and development within our national parks continues to grow at an exponential rate as evidenced by an increasing number of new shopping malls within Banff townsite. Development adjacent to park boundaries threatens wildlife movements in and out of parks. How can we balance our continued thirst for development with the needs of conservation?

One way is through the application of conservation biology principles, or what I call big picture conservation. This is the basis for an ambitious program to "rewild" North America, called the Wildlands Project, initiated by Dave Foreman and Dr. Reed Noss. The mission of the Wildlands Project is to protect and restore the ecological richness and native biodiversity of North America through the establishment of a connected system of reserves.4 The Wildlands Project is based in Tucson, Arizona and is a loose network of conservation organizations working together to establish proposals to rewild each bio-region of North America.

There are three central components to the Wildlands Project. The first is a need to secure core protected areas, free of development, that encompass the full range of communities, ecosystems, habitats, environmental gradients and successional stages. Secondly, the integrity of these cores would be protected by creating buffer zones around them that allow for a restricted range of activities. Finally, the key element to the proposal is a series of interconnecting corridors to allow for genetic exchange and prevent genetic isolation.5

The big conservation picture for the Canadian and American Rockies is embraced in the Yellowstone to Yukon biodiversity strategy. This proposal considers designating four core areas including Yellowstone National Park, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper Mountain Parks, and the Northern Rockies of British Columbia, one of the last unprotected areas of wilderness south of the 60th parallel. These core areas would be linked by connecting corridors up to several kilometers wide that would allow for free movement of large carnivores such as wolf and grizzly bear.6 This month, a group of conservationists and scientists will be gathering in Alberta to discuss how such a proposal could be implemented.

Some may scoff at this big picture conservation ideal and suggest too many changes have occurred to make it a reality. But we have to change our mental point of reference toward what is a protected area. No one could have predicted just over a century ago that we could remove the bison from the North American prairie, yet in under a decade, they were eradicated. No one could imagine that millions of passenger pigeons which once darkened the skies of eastern North America would be gone, yet they were all but gone from the wild in 1900 and the last one died in captivity in 1914. We have been blessed with a large land base in North America that has allowed wildlife to retreat from the onslaught of human development over the last one hundred years while still allowing the survival of small and increasingly more isolated populations. It is somewhat ironic that in the past the grizzly bear, a species we now associate with the mountains, may have been more common on the prairies than in the Rocky Mountains themselves. Yet the land base continues to shrink before us as do the opportunities for lasting conservation.

We must change our frame of mind and recognize that a series of protected cores and corridors does not represent a significant utilization of land. We must change our multiple use mentality which has developed over the last 50 years and recognize that "we can't have it all". We have to think big.

1Sax , Joseph, L. 1984. Mountains without handrails. Reflections on the National Parks. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor. Michigan.


3Newmark, W.D. 1995. Extinction of mammal populations in western North American national parks. Conservation Biology 9(3): 512-526.

4The Wildlands Project. Plotting a North American wilderness recovery strategy. Wild Earth. Special Issue.


6Locke, H. 1994. Preserving the Wild Heart of North America. Borealis 15: 18-24.



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