Plenary Panel on Canada’s National Parks (UWS2012)

The conference’s Plenary Panel on Ecological Integrity in Canadas National Parks was sponsored by the Calgary Foundation and took place on Thursday, October 11, 4:30 pm, in Ross Glen Hall.

Canada Parks Panel Video:

Plenary Panel on Ecological Integrity in Canada's National Parks
Plenary Panel on Ecological Integrity in Canada’s National Parks
Image courtesy of Peter Dettling. (Click photo to visit the photographer’s website.)


Moderator: Jeff Gailus (author of The Grizzly Manifesto and Little Black Lies)

History and Introduction

In early 2000, the Panel on the Ecological Integrity (EI) of Canada’s National Parks reported to the federal government on the state of affairs with respect to ecological conditions in and around parks. It also recommended changes to the way Parks Canada managed its lands and interacted with surrounding jurisdictions to reduce risks to the EI of parks and to the greater park ecosystems. An editorial in the Globe and Mail heralded the report as important, rational, and balanced. On its heels, a new National Parks Act intended to clarify that there was no “dual mandate” and EI was “job 1.” Investments to address the recommendations were realized. From a scientific perspective, the need for parks as ecological ‘benchmarks’ against which to make robust inferences about effects of human alteration of ecosystems is as real now as it was prior to the revision of the Act.

Yet, by many accounts, the strengthened EI mandate seems itself at risk of becoming a shibboleth. ‘EI’ has disappeared from Parks Canada organization charts; there is less emphasis on ‘greater park ecosystems’, where a number of important threats to ecological conditions in parks arise; and resources to address questions about the causes and consequences of changes in ecological conditions in and around parks have been reduced. (Written by panelist Tom Nudds)

Twelve years after the original panel made its recommendations, join us as Canada’s leading researchers in the natural and social sciences analyze and assess the state and future of EI in Canada’s national parks.


The Past is Present: Linking the Dual Mandate, Declining Visitation and Political Ideology
John Shultis, University of Northern British Columbia (Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Management Program)

The first national parks were created at a time in Canadian history where the development of natural resources was governments’ main objective. Liberalism was the dominant ideology, and the “doctrine of usefulness” the primary driver of government land-use policies. Early national parks focused on attracting visitors to generate public and political support for these areas (i.e., use versus preservation).

More than a century later, after the national parks had re-focused their policies towards the preservation of ecological integrity, several shifts in political and social forces have meant that park management has once again swung towards neo-liberalism and a focus on use versus preservation. The role of declining visitation in national parks has played a key role in this recent shift, although the rise of neo-liberal ideology has also had significant impacts on the recent shift towards an emphasis on use over preservation in Canadian national parks.

Ecological Integrity and the Law in Canada’s National Parks
Shaun Fluker, University of Calgary (Faculty of Law)

One of the EI Panel’s recommendation was for legislative amendments to ensure the maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity is the overriding priority in national parks management. The consensus among panel members was that Parks Canada required a stronger legal mandate to protect parks from the human activity that was largely responsible for their ecological decline. Parliament responded in February 2001 by legislating an expanded ecological integrity mandate in the Canada National Parks Act, requiring that national parks be managed as core preservation areas with little human presence or influence.

However, judicial interpretation of the ecological integrity rule in the Canada National Parks Act has significantly read down the priority for ecological integrity in parks management. The general argument is that an application of statutory rules is predisposed towards the balancing of competing interests and polycentric considerations. It’s possible that a categorical assertion of authority in legislation is inextricably linked to the policy debates underlying its enactment.  Worse, the rule may be completely flipped on its head when necessary to satisfy the competing interests of ecological protection and human use.

Image courtesy of Peter Dettling. (Click photo to visit the photographer’s website.)

Impaired for Future Generations
Pamela Wright, University of Northern British Columbia (Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Management, Ecosystem Science and Management Program) and Vice-Chair of the original Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada’s National Parks

Twelve years ago, the EI Panel prefaced its report with the statement that “creating an internal culture of conservation, is the single biggest challenge facing” the Parks Canada Agency. While the panel heard countless incredible stories of excellent work by park staff, it was clear systemic problems existed within the Agency that prevented doing “the right thing”.

Over the last decade there has been significant improvement in transforming Parks Canada into a learning culture where evaluation and feedback are welcome and knowledge and expertise are valued. Today, Parks Canada has an incredible legacy of marine and terrestrial resources; a plethora of complex ecological challenges; an ever-changing society; and an utterly devastated organization. Have we created an institution that is impaired for future generations?

Bringing the Ecological Integrity (EI) Mandate Back into Focus in Canada’s National Parks  
Alison Woodley, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (National Conservation Director)

In the years following the release of the groundbreaking report of the Panel on Ecological Integrity, Parks Canada made significant progress developing and resourcing a science-based approach to achieving the legally required management standard of ecological integrity, to the point where the Agency’s model for park management is now being adopted around the world, in places as diverse as Korea, the United States and Australia. Last year the Globe and Mail celebrated ecological integrity as “Canada’s latest export”. Ironically, only one year later, this same newspaper published a feature story on the significant threats our parks face.In the past year, a series of management decisions to allow more infrastructure development in Banff, Jasper and Riding Mountain National Parks have provided stark examples of how this recent shift in management thinking away from EI as the first priority is playing out on the ground. Recent budget cuts have thrown more oil on the fire, gutting the science and monitoring capacity of the agency, and putting at risk the ecological science and monitoring programs that are essential to achieving ecological integrity in our parks.Highlighting examples and observations from more than a decade of work with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Woodley explores the linkages between the Agency’s recent “mission drift” and their rush to make parks more “relevant” to a broader cross-section of Canadians. She also suggests what needs to happen to re-invigorate the concept of EI as the overarching management priority in our national parks.Whither Parks Canada’s Ecological Integrity Mandate?
Tom Nudds, University of Guelph (Department of Integrative Biology) and a member of the original Panel on the Ecological Integrity in Canada’s National ParksThe potential effects of development in and around parks on EI are frequently debated, often in the absence of evidence about the nature and form of trade-offs. The trade-offs faced by park managers are illustrative of the challenges presented by linked socio-ecological systems. Trade-off analyses should fairly weigh use and non-use values of parks. Recent studies suggest that non-use values of national parks to Canadians outweigh potential use values that could be realized without undermining EI. These studies call into question whether Parks Canada needs to open its collective gates to greater visitor use, and put at risk parks’ important roles as ecological baselines against which to measure ecosystem change. 

Image courtesy of Peter Dettling. (Click photo to visit the photographer’s website.)

National Parks Governance in Canada: What Place for Intrinsic Value?
Rosalind Warner, Okanagan College (Department of Political Science)

Should parks be protected for their “use value” or for their intrinsic value? Advocates for parks have focused mostly on their instrumental value: as economic zones, as educational resources, or as ecological storehouses. Warner contrasts this instrumental approach with an argument for the intrinsic value of parks, in parallel with the norm of ecological integrity and the notion of a public trust. The problem is to find a way to incorporate the norm of intrinsic value into permanent governance arrangements in the most effective and direct way.

 Bill Fisher (Vice-President Operations, Parks Canada, Western & Northern Canada), Response

*Open to the public through MRU’s Ticketmaster:

Past conferences for Under Western Skies