The former superintendent of Banff National Park says national, provincial and municipal parks protect nature to some extent but generally fail in the more important goal of educating and connecting people with the natural world around them.
A park boundary is not a halo, said Kevin Van Tighem.
“We’re doing parks wrong in many cases. Parks are still the best way to protect nature because it’s kind of a lock down of natural values,” he said in an interview before addressing the Southern Alberta Council of Public Affairs.
“But it’s not enough just to simply protect the park and say that you’ve done the job, especially because quite often when we protect parks we actually don’t really protect them. We just turn them into another modified landscape of development.”
Van Tighem retired from Parks Canada in 2011 and after reflecting on the parks system, concluded that they’ve improved ecosystem management in recent years. Parks are now more natural and wilder than they used to be, he said.
“The disconnect is that I think that the quality of people’s connection to those parks as visitors has gone downhill. Now it’s just about a place to collect selfies and check off a couple of peaks that you managed to hike to the top of.
“People aren’t digging in as deep as they used to. They aren’t spending as long, they aren’t going as deep and they aren’t learning as much in their park experience, and that’s critical. We can’t have a society that’s divorced from nature. It does not protect nature.
“Ultimately, if that’s all parks do, any protection they do would be negated by having a disconnected citizenry that won’t keep those parks as conservation places and won’t look at the rest of the landscape as being something worth considering too.”
Van Tighem is also an author and an advocate for preserving Alberta’s wilderness areas, and has spoken out in the past about all-terrain vehicle (ATV) use in the Castle region of the province’s southwest.
The government recently released a study of the Castle Wildland Provincial Park and Castle Provincial Park that indicated use of ATVs is a major factor threatening the parks’ plants, animals and ecology.
A potential permanent ban on ATVs in the region has been a source of controversy among ATV users and Alberta Environment and Parks. The area in question, which spans an estimated 1,000 sq. kilometres in the headwaters of regional rivers, has about 1,700 km of trails.
“ATVs should absolutely not be allowed in any park,” said Van Tighem. “It goes to that question about the value of the nature of interactions. You can put a lot more people into a landscape on foot than you can with wheels under them and when they’re on foot they aren’t having the same impact on the landscape that we do when we have powerful engines turning powerful wheels with lug tires. So if your purpose is landscape conservation, then the first rule should be to experience that landscape in ways that actually conserve it.”
In his address to SACPA, Van Tighem said parks have a role in helping people define themselves and their sense of place. They can help people see themselves as a part of nature but they haven’t been successful in that role.
Albertans have become complacent about their culture, he said, and have allowed themselves and the province to be defined by the energy sector.
“We’ve allowed that one big story to drown out the real story of who we are,” he said.
Parks can be part of citizens’ narrative while protecting nature, but it requires people to continue the job, he added. Land trusts can protect landscapes beyond government proscribed boundaries while still maintaining private property interests.