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Canada’s National Parks Are Being Turned Into Theme Parks

A watchdog group points the finger at Parks Canada.

Canada's prized national parks are being turned over to "theme park-like development," as science and conservation take a back seat to marketing and commercial interests to lure in more tourists, says a new report from a national watchdog group. It puts the blame on Parks Canada, the government agency responsible for looking after these parks' ecological integrity.

Just look at Alberta's Jasper National Park, where in 2012, Parks Canada approved the construction of a "Glacier Skywalk," turning a once-public view into a "private pay-per-use" attraction despite public outcry, says a new report from the nonprofit Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

Or the looming monstrosity that was Mother Canada, planned for Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a project that was blessedly cancelled under the Liberal government.

"Over almost a decade, we've seen a dramatic shift in how [Parks Canada] is managing its parks, away from conservation efforts and towards development and marketing," Alison Woodley of CPAWS, author of the new report, told me. "It's coming at the expense of the very nature our parks are supposed to protect."

A roadside elk near Banff. Image: Andrew Bowden/Flickr

Woodley takes issue with Parks Canada's decision to barge ahead with a series of infrastructure developments "in already-crowded Banff and Jasper national parks, which threaten to whittle away wilderness habitats," she said.

That includes a controversial expansion of the Lake Louise Ski Resort (which was approved in 2015), and what the report dubs a "mysterious $66 million paved bike path," which will push right through endangered caribou and grizzly habitats.

The report goes on to say that Parks Canada has blamed dropping attendance numbers for its need to sex up national parks with glacier walks and paved bike routes. But CPAWS points out that attendance has actually been pretty steady over the last 15 years, although drops came after times of global insecurity, like the economic downturn in 2008, or after 9/11.

"Any drop in visitation, from what we're seeing, is not because people aren't interested in visiting our parks," Woodley countered. In fact, in the past two years, visits to Banff National Park—which is often jam-packed as it is—are up over 20 percent, she said.

Woodley said there are signs that the newish government in Ottawa is taking all of this seriously (the cancellation of Mother Canada is a big one). The Environment Minister is reviewing the report's recommendations, which include scrapping the bike path, cancelling the Lake Louise expansion, opening up park reporting to external peer-review, and requiring that all national parks staff take an "ecological integrity training program."

Parks Canada sent an emailed statement to Motherboard, which said in part that "strict development limits" protect the "ecological integrity" of national parks, and that any development is done through consultation with the public and stakeholders, including Indigenous groups. (Still, one of Woodley's beefs is that the public isn't consulted enough, and that some projects seem to proceed despite opposition.)

The statement goes on to note that the Banff and Jasper national parks saw more than 6 million visits last year combined, and that over 96 percent and 97 percent of them (respectively) are declared wilderness areas, "with strong limits on development and use."

All of this will be fodder for discussion at a Minister's round table, to be held this fall.

Ultimately, Canadians don't seem to want fancy bells and whistles in their national parks: just look at how angry many of us got about Mother Canada, or when Parks Canada said it might introduce WiFi hotspots. "Canadians want to enjoy unspoiled nature," Woodley said—or at least to know that there's still unspoiled nature out there somewhere, outside city limits.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Jasper National Park is in BC, when it is in fact in Alberta. The elk depicted in the photo was initially mislabeled as a caribou. The story has been updated.