Unimpaired for future generations
© Parks Canada / É. Le Bel
The national parks of Canada were created to protect and ensure the survival in perpetuity of certain nationally-significant areas of our natural heritage.
Most people think of the national parks as refuges which nothing can alter. For many, the simple fact of bestowing the attribute of "park" upon a territory guarantees the maintenance and conservation of its natural resources forever. However, appearances can be deceiving.
Few people are aware that behind the great natural beauty of many national parks, there lie sometimes grave environmental issues.
Though conservation of the environment has always been at the core of the parks' mandate, Parks Canada goes further still and today demands the maintenance and restoration of the ecological integrity of its territories.
The State of the Parks 1997 Report surmised that the national parks are under threat from stresses originating both inside and outside the parks. The report proceeded to name nearly all of the national parks as being seriously threatened (of the 38 parks in the national network at the time, only one was considered to be still in a natural state). We can conclude that, unless we act immediately, the deterioration will only worsen with each passing day.
The term "ecological integrity" is new enough that it can appear somewhat vague. However, its meaning can be made clear by analysing its component parts. The term contains the word "ecology", which can be defined as "the study of environments where organisms live and reproduce, as well as their relation to these environments". The word "integrity" in turn means "whole" or "intact".
Simply stated, ecological integrity means that the native organisms (fauna, flora, etc.) and processes (growth, reproduction, decomposition, etc.) of a given environment must be in an intact state, and must be able to continue to develop and evolve naturally. In other words, an environment is deemed "ecologically intact" when Nature's evolution can proceed unimpaired.
But can we depend on the ecological integrity of our national parks? Human activity is now so dominant that most of the planet's ecosystems are groaning under the weight of myriad stresses. Pollution, climate change, the loss of habitats in the wake of urban and industrial development, the use of agricultural pesticides - these are but a few of the stresses which the environment has to assume.
Add to these the threats coming from within the parks themselves, such as expanding tourism, infrastructural over-development or the introduction of exotic species, and you have before you the sobering reality of the state of many Canadian parks today.
For too long, the national parks have been managed in isolation without taking into account the effects of surrounding territories. The lands bordering the parks exercise considerable influence on the natural equilibrium of the parks' ecosystems. This is why we must work hand-in-glove with those responsible for the management of adjacent lands, to be able to consider re-establishing and protecting the ecological integrity of our national parks.
We must fight to rectify all of these stress factors, internal as well as external, which have contributed to the decline of the national parks of Canada. If we continue the way we have been going, we stand to forever lose territories which, paradoxically, have always been seen as being protected. Only swift and decisive action will guarantee future generations the gift of these exceptional territories, still INTACT.
All of Canada's national parks, large or small, are facing environmental realities. The State of the Parks 1997 Report conceded a "minor" level of degradation to the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve of Canada, where many of the properties of the ecosystem are still intact. The park possesses its complete range of indigenous species, and its territory remains relatively undeveloped.
All the same, given the fragility of its resources, the park must stay vigilant in order to maintain and, if possible, improve the level of its territory's ecological integrity.
The park is an integral part of an extended ecosystem which goes far beyond the archipelago. The islands are closely linked to the surrounding marine world (the Gulf of St. Lawrence) and continent (the coast). Changes observed in either one of these milieus often have a direct impact on the islands' ecosystems.
Climate change, management of adjoining lands, the impact of tourism and recreational activities, exploitation of the natural resources, commercial fishing, maritime transport, the introduction of non-native species: these are some of the stress factors to which the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve of Canada is subject.
Thus, even with "minimal" degradation, it is important to continue to increase our knowledge of our environmental resources in order to make enlightened decisions on how to protect and re-establish the park's ecological integrity. The stress factors are real, even though they might not be immediately visible. Nature is capable of adapting to many changes, but not for an indefinite period.
We need not look backward with regret; instead, we must look to the future. The importance of these special places must be communicated to the population, and the necessity of their protection made clear. The more Canadians know about the stresses which threaten our national parks, the more they will support the conservation of ecological integrity .