The protection of our provincial parks was largely ignored during the rush to privatize them in the 1990s. Now we have a second chance to do the right thing.
On July 21, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced a new initiative to increase “business opportunities” associated with privatized provincial parks.
This initiative has two components. Those privatized parks under lease to private operators can now be acquired wholesale through Crown grants, and those privatized parks that were not taken over by a private operator can also acquired as Crown grants. It is important to note that this initiative does not involve the remaining provincial parks — just those that were deregulated in 1995 and 1997. A total of 56 parks, or about 75 per cent of our once proud provincial parks system, were lost.
At the time, the initiative was rationalized as a business opportunity for rural N.L. Interested parties could obtain a lease for the park on the condition that they maintain and operate the park. It will go as no surprise, especially given our current summer, that the park season in our province is short. While some of the parks were taken over by private operators, most remained unclaimed.
Unfortunately, a number of these unclaimed ex-parks were vandalized and damaged. One prominent example of this was Pearson’s Peak. This small park celebrated the completion of the Trans National Highway. The park was the site where the last kilometre of the highway was finished and was also the location of a historic ceremony featuring then-Prime Minister Lestor Pearson and Premier Joey Smallwood. After the this little park was deregulated, it fell into disrepair until it was destroyed and the commemorative plaque stolen.
These parks were established for a variety of reasons. A few, as in the case of Pearson’s Peak, were historical, but the majority were established for conservation, aesthetic or recreational purposes.
It is something of a myth that our parks consisted only of camping loops. In fact, when compared to provincial parks in the other Atlantic Provinces, our parks were giants. They were much larger and many were designed to protect large examples of our natural landscape.
Take, for instance, Stag Lake just south of Corner Brook. This park was about 1,200 hectares or almost 3,000 acres. In other cases, parks were established to protect other special natural features. Blue Ponds, also south of Corner Brook, contained several rare plants. A number of smaller parks were specifically established to protect sandy beaches, not only for their recreational value but also because at the time many sandy beaches were being illegally mined for sand.
During the 1950s to the 1970s, parks were the premier legislative tool to protect our natural environment. Other, stronger legislative tools were proclaimed after that such as the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act. But, until then, our parks had a dual mandate to provide inexpensive recreational opportunities and protect our natural environment.
The protection aspect of our parks was largely ignored during the rush to privatize them in the 1990s. There were a low number of exceptions. Parks staff and others successfully argued to retain the back country of seven or eight parks under the Provincial Parks Act because of the natural features they contained. Other natural features, such as the sandy beach in Black Bank or the red pine in David Smallwood, lost what protection they had as parks.
We have a rare second chance to rectify these mistakes. The current business proposal mentions nothing about the conservation role these ex-parks once had.
If this government is truly interested in balancing development and conservation, it will undertake a review of the ex-parks to see which contained special natural features. Technology exists today that was not available in the 1990s that can greatly assist with this review. Furthermore, our knowledge of the special features of our landscape, whether rare plant locations or important areas for species at risk, has also increased.
We are not suggesting that the ex-parks with special features be reinstated as parks. Instead, other conservation tools, such as community stewardship or, in the most extreme cases, protection as reserves should be considered.
To not do so, we will simply be repeating the mistakes of the past. For this, there is no excuse.