Exploring Parks

Like thousands of others, I spent the past May 24 weekend camping.  It was my second time to Algonquin Provincial Park in as many months.  My return to camping after almost a decade of only “car camping” coincided with Park Canada’s 100th anniversary, rumours about Rouge Park (in Toronto and Markham) becoming Canada’s first urban national park, and a conference I attended on Farming in the Park (that looked at a model of National Park in Ohio that is encouraging commercial farming).  This got me thinking about the reasons that we have national and provincial parks, what they contribute to community, and how the role of parks might change in the future.

Algonquin, the park where I just spent my weekend, was the first park the Province of Ontario established in 1893.  But it wasn’t until the 1950s that a parks department was created with the mandate of new and aggressive program to create more parks, primarily on the Great Lake and northern tourism highways.  But the early 1980s there was a comprehensive land use planning system to identify new parks, leading to 155 new park designations in 1983.  By 2002 there were 280 provincial parks encompassing 7.1 million hectares or almost 9 percent of the province’s area.

To help me understand the history of parks, Jim recommended a great open source ebook called A CENTURY OF PARKS CANADA 1911-2011 edited by Claire Elizabeth Campbell.  The follow excerpt from the introduction captured my attention.

We prize our national parks because they are places of physical beauty, snapshots of the incredible diversity of the Canadian landscape. We may also think of them as ecological sanctuaries that protect nature for us and, increasingly, protect nature from us. But national parks are not “islands of wilderness” saved from history: they are the work of human hands and records of our history. They document our relationship to nature, not just as we wish it could be, but as it has been. Public demands, political strategy, environmental concern, cultural symbolism, and scientific debate have all been inscribed in our parks.

This excerpt (and the rest of the chapter, which I encourage you to read) confirmed my initial thoughts that park building in Canada reflected a range of our values, including the emergence of conservation and environmental movements as driving forces.  But just as important was the increasing ability to access parks through private car ownership and the increasing demand to have places to go as we (sub)urbanized.

There are many implications of provincial or national parks on community.  An excursion into a park will test the immediate community of people that share the experience.  My three hikes through Algonquin’s back country trails included trusting the small group that I was with and our common experience of swarms of May black flies and mosquitoes or the April wade through icy waters.  There is camaraderie amongst park visitors as well.  In an urban or suburb setting it would be rare to start up a conversation when passing a complete stranger on the sidewalk.  On a trail (in our case our chosen campsite basically had the trail going through it so we never really left the trail) we chatted with every other group we encountered.  I also think national and provincial parks are integral to our common identity, whether from family trips, scout (or guide) camps, or just the generic Canadiana images we associate with our country.

I have no doubt that our national and provincial parks will continue to change over time.  If nothing else, there are strategic planning documents that the parks departments have.  For example, while there are already 42 national parks, the parks system is only considered 60% complete and new parks are already in the process of being designated.  But there are more than just new park additions that will change our parks.  The conference I attended last week is a good example, where the Cuyahoga Valley National Park has developed a focus on farming.  The park was initially formed in mid-1970s with a natural heritage focus.  The farms were mostly expropriated and gradually went fallow and started to re-naturalize as farmers retired or sold their land.  But since 2002 farming has started to be reintroduced into the park through long-term leases of rehabilitated farmsteads and associated fields to private citizens through a competitive bid-process. The reason behind this move was to make the park accessible to a more diverse audience and to respond to the growing demand for locally grown and sustainable foods.  I imagine that many of our parks, especially those that are near-urban, will make similar modifications to their planning and programming as our demands change.  As we becoming increasingly urbanized, as the price of oil makes trips to more remote parks increasingly expensive, and as our priorities for non-urbanized spaces change (like our current interest in local and sustainable food) our parks will continue to adapt, grow and shape the communities that use them.