On December 10 2013, Ontario’s Auditor General released her Annual Report. Along with perennial concerns about health care, education and use of public resources, the Report also documented the under-resourced state of our Parks and Protected Areas.
Ontarians are justifiably proud of the size, beauty and ecological worth of our provincial parks system. We expect that when land is set aside as a Park it will maintain its natural splendours in perpetuity and provide an example of wild, untouched nature. We expect to measure the health of lands outside of parks against these benchmarks of biodiversity and ecosystem health. The Auditor General’s Report shatters these expectations with accounts of a Ministry of Natural Resources so under-funded that it doesn’t know what is happening to these provincial treasures, let alone actually protect them.
The Report describes how the number and size of Parks in Ontario have grown and how the world-leading Provincial Parks and Conservation reserves Act of 2006 (PPCRA) has expanded the Ministry of Natural Resources responsibilities. Chief among these is the requirement to ensure that ecological integrity (i.e. natural systems having all their parts and functions ) is the highest priority in park management.
The Report details how the under-resourced Ministry is failing in its mandate to both protect park ecosystems and ‘provide opportunities for ecologically sustainable recreation’ and is danger of losing further ground.
It is appalling that the legislated management directions that are to map out policies in each park on how to protect nature are in such a backlog 7 years after the new Act came into force. Only just over half have been reviewed. Most of these need to be rewritten. In a sample of those directions that the Ministry declared to be consistent with the PPCRA, none clearly articulated that ecological integrity was job one. Although they all lamented that significant environmental damage had taken place, none addressed it in a meaningful way.
Park staff members acknowledge that they do not have the basic data by which ecological integrity could be assessed. They simply don’t have the staff to conduct the monitoring. Large portions of the vast park system have no enforcement. Park staff know that detrimental activities such are taking place but they cannot cover the ground adequately.
This is clearly a Ministry that is struggling to fulfill its vital role as the steward of some of our most important lands: our public protected spaces.
What the Report only alludes to is that the Ministry of Natural Resources budget has been slashed repeatedly over the last 20 years. According to OPSEU, staff for all of MNR has been reduced by 40% in number since the mid 1990s. Who knows what proportion of this Ontario Parks shouldered or the relative loss compared to population growth and ecological pressures, but the impact is clearly staggering.
To make clear what this means, consider the oldest and best known Park in the Province: Algonquin. The mere word conjures images of howling wolves, lonesome loons, massive moose, wild trout and canoe adventures within a day’s travel of Canada’s largest urban populations . Yet Algonquin, for all it inspires, provides too many examples of the ecological risk that Ontario Parks cannot assess, let alone combat. Canoe campsites and portages dot the interior. Forestry access roads wind through 5,000 km. A massive hydro corridor, a major highway and an old railway line criss-cross it. Dams control the levels of lakes and rivers. Tourism outfitters, lodges, and children’s camps hug the shores of many lakes along the highway. And there are over 300 cottages scattered around these same shores. With over a million visitors a year, we risk both industrializing and loving Algonquin to death.
Unfortunately, Algonquin’s management plan still does not clearly prioritize ecological integrity as job one. The results are fuzzy dealings with its many users. For instance, the recent amendment to the Park management plan to lighten the footprint of commercial logging has provisions that may allow new roads in much of the area under expanded protection. The amendment thus fails to completely live up to the promise of enhancing ecological integrity. Similarly, a proposal to extend cottage leases for another 21 years beyond their agreed expiring of 2017 has been put forward without knowing what the impacts on EI could be. There has been no reason given for the reversal in policy. There is no background data, and no assessment of the pros and cons of extending cottage leases has been done. By omitting any case for lease extension, the province inhibits reasonable debate and knowledgeable submissions on this issue.
A rational approach to prioritizing ecological integrity in Algonquin’s matrix of uses would be to take a baseline survey of the health of all the ecosystem components (forests, waterways, wetlands, wildlife etc.) and see how all the uses of the Park impact this health both individually and collectively. Then, a comprehensive strategy would prioritize action to maintain and improve ecological integrity targeting all uses. It is foreseeable that such an approach would put logging roads and the highway at the high end of impacts with tighter constraints in order to maintain and improve EI. Cottages and canoe camping would likely come out at the lower end of impact but would still be subject to changes to help EI.
But the rational approach would require better funding than recent Ontario governments have been willing to dole out to Natural Resource stewardship. All those who profess love for Algonquin- the canoeists, the cottagers, the scenic highway drivers and even the loggers- need to step up and support management for ecological integrity- even if it impacts their particular experience of the Park.
It is time to put our money where our mouth is and fund the protection of protected areas.
Provincial governments of all stripes need to stop slashing the foundations of MNR’s stewardship through budget cuts and wonky policy proposals around the cabinet table. Give Ontario Parks the resources they need to make ecological integrity the priority. Ontarians expect nothing less.
By Dave Pearce, Manager, Forest Conservation for CPAWS Wildlands League