By Jessica Kirby, Senior Editor of TheGreenGazette –
It’s no longer a secret, a little-known fact, or exclusively the business of those living isolated on a mountain top. The facts are firmly in place: being outside is good for you. Time in the wild, among trees, and near water changes your brain chemistry. It elevates mood, is a great excuse to exercise, and measurably reduces the risk of all kind of illness from diabetes to cancer. The trouble is, we don’t take advantage nearly enough and time in the outdoors is on the decline. However, Canadians are fortunate to have access to miles and miles of protected wilderness and parkland, and thanks to Parks Canada’s ever-evolving mandate, it is easier and more welcoming than ever to set foot in a lifestyle that includes ample time in the endless bounty of Canadian wilderness.
The third Saturday of July every year, Canada marks Canada Parks Day and communities across the country host activities aimed at enticing people to visit parks and historic sites near or far. Fun, family-focused activities are meant to show participants that being outside and experiencing Canada’s protected outdoor spaces is valuable, easy, and rewarding. At the same time, they highlight why parks are important and the crucial role they play in protecting habitats for at-risk and other species, maintaining healthy and resilient ecosystems, and connecting people with the natural world.
Canada’s national park system has been an iconic part of Canadian culture for over 100 years. It includes 42 national parks, 167 historical sites, four national marine conservation areas, and even the gravesites of former Canadian prime ministers. Parks Canada runs on a staff of more than 4,500 people, including wardens, interpreters, tour guides, historians, and scientists, and oversees 377,000 square kilometres of mountains, grasslands, forests, waterways, and tundra. Its funding fluctuates budget to budget, but its core financial health rests at about $690 million annually.
Parks Canada oversees this system with a mandate “to protect unique examples of Canada’s cultural and natural landscapes and present those to Canadians—including future generations.”
The park system was developed back in 1885 with a 26-square-kilometre protected area in Banff, Alberta. Claire Campbell, editor of A Century of Parks Canada, said the area was deemed a park to create a tourist destination close to the Canadian Pacific Railway and take advantage of the economic potential of the area’s hot springs.
By 1911, Canada had a handful of national parks and created the Dominion Parks Branch to oversee them—over the years this agency has undergone many name changes, and is currently called Parks Canada Agency.
Campbell, who is also an associate professor of history at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said Parks Canada’s evolution has involved increases awareness of environmental concerns, beginning in the 1960s with critique from the academic community and feedback from the general public, which “focused attention on the detrimental impact of human activity,” she told the CBC in an interview from 2015.
According to Campbell, “the shift from presentation to protection gained momentum for several decades before culminating in the Panel on Ecological Integrity of Canada’s National Parks in 1998.” The Panel investigated the environmental health of the country’s parks and determined almost all of them were facing ecological threats due mainly to pollution and loss of habitat, she told the CBC.
The Panel’s final report marked the turning point from presentation to protection and in 2000, Canada’s National Parks Act officially changed Parks Canada’s mandate. Since then, the agency has grown successfully in its education, preservation, and habitat and species reintroduction programs. It has also become more progressive in its co-operative practices, working with First Nations to establish appropriate park boundaries and preserve and protect cultural sites and heritage.
Today, Canadian parks range in size from nine square kilometres (St. Lawrence Islands National Park, Ontario) to nearly 45,000 square kilometres (Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta and the Northwest Territories) and in popularity—Banff National Park saw 3.13 million visits in 2015, whereas Tutktut Nogait National Park, located 170 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, sees about 12 per year, said an article written by the CBC.
Overall, however, the number of national visitors has dropped from 22.4 million in 2001 to 20.7 million in 2015, said the same article. Andrew Campbell, director of general visitor experience for Parks Canada told the CBC one of the main reasons for the decline is a lack of basic outdoors skills, especially among those who live in urban areas.
Parks Canada is again shifting its programming to meet Canadians’ changing habits and demographics. Learn to Camp programs invite families to learn the basics like pitching a tent and cooking over a fire, and reaching out to new Canadians means advertising through ethnic media outlets and creating areas to accommodate large groups for those who prefer to gather in large numbers over doing so in an isolated campsite for a single nuclear family, Campbell told the CBC.
“The goal is to have ‘everybody feel that these treasured places – that either tell our history or show our nature – are ones that every Canadian feels are a part of them,” he said in the article.
This year, Canada Parks Day falls on July 15. It is a beautiful time of year to create space in nature, visit these essential parts of Canada’s history and heritage, and appreciate them as areas rich in both human history and the bounty wilderness offers. How will you celebrate?