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Budget cuts, policies imperil Canada's national parks: report

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OTTAWA -- Budget cuts and government policy choices are driving bad management practices of Canada's cherished parks including Riding Mountain National Park.

That's the verdict from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) in its annual report, which sounds alarm bells over the long-term viability of parks with fewer staff and a trend toward inappropriate development within and around park boundaries.

Among the concerns are planned $30-million cuts to Parks Canada's budget, which will result in the elimination of 600 jobs countrywide.

"With less staff on the ground, it opens it up to inappropriate actions by wrongdoers," said Ron Thiessen, the executive director for the CPAWS Manitoba office.

Thiessen said governments don't make park funding a priority and it is often one of the first things to go when dollars get tight.

Parks Canada's own reviews suggest for every dollar of government money invested in parks, $5 is generated toward the gross domestic product, including tourism dollars and taxes. The report says in 2009, Canada's 14 park agencies spent $800 million and generated $4.6 billion in economic activity, and supported the equivalent of 64,000 full-time jobs.

The CPAWS report specifically takes issue with plans to redevelop the Mount Agassiz ski resort in Riding Mountain National Park. The ski resort went bankrupt and hasn't operated since 2000. Parks Canada rejigged the management plan for Riding Mountain just a month ago to allow for proposals to redevelop the ski area. While the Canada National Parks Act doesn't allow new ski resorts to be built in national parks because of the impact downhill ski equipment has on ecosystems, Mount Agassiz may get around those rules because the resort's infrastructure still exists.

"With most of the equipment and buildings at the Mount Agassiz hill in need of replacement, and after a decade of ecosystem regeneration at the abandoned hill, redeveloping this site would essentially mean developing a new ski area and losing an ecologically important area," reads the report.

Environment Minister Peter Kent dismissed the CPAWS report.

"After reading the report and release, I think that while CPAWS and our government have shared interests in our parks and protected spaces, CPAWS see a glass half-empty while we see it half-full, and filling," he said via email.

Kent's spokesman, Adam Sweet, added national parks are a cornerstone of the government's conservation strategy. He said since 2006, 133,000 square kilometres of additional parkland have been added to Parks Canada lands, the equivalent to adding a country the size of Greece to protected areas.

"Our record speaks for itself and it is one that we feel Canadians can be proud of," said Sweet. "No other country has come close to Canada in recent years to increasing the amount of protected areas, and we have every intention to build on this record."

The CPAWS report does acknowledge the additional lands added to the protected areas but says the threats to protection overshadow any such progress.

Andrew Campbell, the vice-president of external relations for Parks Canada, said most of the budget cuts and job losses are for backroom staff and said Canadians can still be proud of their national parks.

"We've had to find more effective and efficient means but they are raising alarm bells more than perhaps are needed," Campbell said of the CPAWS report.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2012 0

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