That botched exam question from his own student days has come up again for zoology professor Tom Nudds. This time, what's at stake is not a course grade but the fate of Canada's increasingly embattled national parks.
It was as a student at the University of Windsor in the early 1970s that Nudds encountered that infamous question on an introductory ecology exam: Why doesn't Point Pelee National Park have even half of the small mammal species it used to have? The short answer: the smaller the park, the faster the rate of species loss. Although Nudds recalls "bombing" the exam question, "the whole idea of parks as islands in a sea of development stuck like glue."
Today, he belongs to a federal panel putting the final touches on a report recommending an approach to fixing the country's venerable but vulnerable parks system. From species loss to encroaching development - notably around Banff National Park, which he calls the "lightning rod" for concerns over Canada's national parks system - Nudds says the parks are failing to live up to their pin-up image of pristine lakes, rivers, forests and mountains.
Although he can't comment specifically on the group's recommendations until its report comes out next spring, he says the document will include such ideas as increasing funding, designating new areas as national parks and, perhaps most important, revamping the agency charged with running that system.
"It's a blueprint for change, not a specific list of details," he says of the report, written by the 11 members of the Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada's National Parks.
Following nearly a year's worth of hearings held across Canada, the group is expected to submit its report to Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps within a few weeks. The panel was formed last year following a 1997 report that pinpointed numerous problems with the Canadian parks system.
Just last week, Parks Canada announced that it plans to take part in Alberta's environmental review of a proposed development adjoining Banff National Park. According to a recent Globe and Mail article, Parks staff are worried about the effects on grizzly bear habitat of a project slated for the Kananaskis area. The project is only the latest in a string of recent development initiatives around what is billed as Canada's favourite national park.
Nudds says his group found similar problems in the handful of parks they visited from among the 39 reserves that dot the map of Canada hanging in his Axelrod Building office:
- In Prince Edward Island, the national park is in the midst of a controversy over proposed development of a visitors' centre and attendant development on the reserve's border.
- Pacific Rim National Park is embroiled in arguments over leaseholds for logging companies that allow cutting right to the park's borders.
The common element in these and other disputes is the need to consider the effects on the parks of human activities beyond their borders. That's a sea change for an agency that has traditionally concentrated on a narrow mandate, says Nudds.
"The problem is that Parks Canada has not been able to be as strong an advocate as other government agencies have been strong advocates for their constituencies such as mining and forestry," he says, adding that he believes environmental issues still get short shrift, particularly when jobs and livelihoods are at stake.
He says the agency needs to adhere to a roughly decade-old clause in the National Parks Act that spells out the notion of managing for ecological integrity. This concept is intended to protect areas from the effects of human activity to preserve their biological diversity and ecological processes.
"Ecological integrity has probably the greatest potential for grounding ecosystem-based management on good science," he says.
A former graduate student, Susan Glenn - now a professor at the University of British Columbia - wrote a thesis in1989 that became the first national assessment of the ecological integrity of protected areas.
The approach requires managers to consider effects of proposed uses beyond park borders and to measure proposed uses against a clear reference state. For example, labelling southern Ontario's Point Pelee National Park as a model Carolinian forest allowed authorities to define acceptable activities there, including permitting Nudds and his students to reintroduce the flying squirrel into the park recently.