I have often written here about the 56 provincial parks that were eliminated in the 1990s. At that time, while most jurisdictions were racing to establish new protected areas, Newfoundland and Labrador was busy getting rid of them. In 1995, the Liberal government of Clyde Wells “privatized” 28 parks. His successor, Brian Tobin, followed suit and got rid of another 28 protected areas. The spin doctors were in full force at that time, euphemistically calling the elimination of 56 protected areas “business opportunities” or “restructuring”. There is no doubt that the province was struggling financially at the time and, in the eyes of politicians, everything was fair game. But despite these attempts to obscure the truth, there were other options besides completely removing any protected status for these areas. I’ll speak to these in a moment, but first I’d like to tell you the story of Stag Lake Provincial Park as I learned it while working for the parks agency.
Once upon a time…
This story, like most tales, begins long ago and is interwoven with other stories. Before Newfoundland joined the Canadian federation in 1949, it was a poor but proud Dominion of the British Empire. One of the more enlightened acts of the Commission of Government was to hire the renowned traveler and angler Lee Wulff to encourage tourism to Newfoundland. Mr. Wulff recommended the establishment of a national park and Serpentine Lake, just south of Corner Brook, was one of his favorite spots on the island.
Shortly after Newfoundland joined Canada, the proposal to protect Serpentine Lake was brought forward again. Ultimately, Terra Nova National Park was established in favour of Serpentine Lake, but interest in protecting this incredibly beautiful and biologically significant area remained. At that time, options to protect land were limited to either national parks or provincial parks. Options like ecological reserve status would not become available for decades. So, using the best tool they had, government began establishing provincial parks across the new province. While these parks would serve as inexpensive but safe camping areas, they would also protect examples of our natural landscape. This dual mandate was exemplified by the relatively large size of our parks. Camping loops were restricted to a small fraction of the total area of most parks. Serpentine Lake, however, was just too remote to service campers. It was not too remote for the pulp and paper industry, however, which expressed an interest in accessing some of the timber within the Serpentine Lake area. This is where Stag Lake comes into the story.
Not far from Serpentine Lake but closer to the highway, Stag Lake offered the conservation and recreational opportunities desired by the provincial government. As the story was told to me, a company that ran a mill on the west coast at the time offered to exchange its interest in Stag Lake for access to timber within the Serpentine Lake area. This sort of exchange was common practice at the time. Consequently, Stag Lake Provincial Park was established in 1980 and the province relinquished its interest in protecting Serpentine Lake.
A remarkable sample of the island’s ecology
The new park was about 1,200 hectares, or nearly 3,000 acres, which is not inconsiderable and quite large for most provincial or state parks. Stag Lake was also underlain by limestone. In Newfoundland, limestone geology has an enormous impact on the surface ecosystems. Barren areas like the Strait of Belle Isle ecoregion, for instance, has the highest concentration of rare plants on the island. In more sheltered areas, limestone bedrock helps support a rich forest and diverse understory. Indeed, Stag Lake protected the largest example of the Corner Brook subregion, a distinct landscape of the Western Newfoundland Forest. I remember my supervisor at parks, who had conducted a survey of Stag Lake, waxing poetic about how beautiful the forests were with tall ferns dominating the understory. He also told me about the rich fens scattered throughout the park. These are bog-like wetlands which receive more nutrients than bogs and, as a consequence, contain more species and look “grassier”. Stag Lake itself had a natural sandy beach surrounded by a flat meadow – perfect for vacationing families.
As time went on, a road to the lake was constructed and a cabin for park staff was built. This was largely the extent of development. Other parks were priorities for development so Stag Lake was kept as a “day use park” (e.g. no camping). Camping loops may have been installed at some point, but by and large people were content to keep the landscape wild and to enjoy the park on short visits. That is, until 1995.
That was the year that, to the astonishment and dismay of most parks staff, 28 parks were eliminated, including Stag Lake. The Province of Newfoundland was again in dire fiscal straits. Each government department was ordered to cut costs; nothing was off the table. Parks, which were under the Department of Tourism, suffered the largest cuts of any division within that department. It is important to understand that these parks were not even “privatized”. They did not remain parks (with only the operations leased to private individuals); instead, they were completely deregulated. No longer provincial parks, they were open to any development proposal.
I am not foolish enough to argue that there should have been no cutbacks to parks at that time. Of course savings had to be found. My issue is with the way government dealt with these 56 parks. There were other options that could have been pursued without completely removing their protected status. The operations could have been leased to individuals while the land was still protected. They could have simply shut the gates on some parks, leaving them empty while waiting for that day in the future when the park could be reopened. Both these options would not have been easy, but they were possible. Instead, government took the easiest path and simply got rid of these protected areas.
Stag Lake was one of the parks that were taken over by a private operator who, once they shut the gates, was then in possession of a 3,000 acre private nature preserve. This went on for years until the provincial government finally called him to task (if you took over a park you were required to operate it as a park). Even the governing party in the House of Assembly recognized that the privatization effort for Stag Lake had failed, as recorded in Hansard in 2000. The erstwhile operator walked away from the park, but not before removing the park cabin and everything else of material value (as was permitted by the terms of the lease).
All the negotiations regarding Serpentine Lake and Stag Lake—all the surveying, road work, boundary cutting—all for nothing. I visited the old park this year. I was there only a short while and visited a small portion of the area, but I saw garbage dumps, ATV trails over sensitive fens and unregulated camping.
And so I come to the end of this tale, or at least as far as I can go. Did you enjoy this story? Good — because there are another 55 just like it.
Addendum: In an ironic twist, interest in protecting Serpentine Lake under the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act was sparked around the same time Stag Lake was eliminated. This interest was completely unrelated to the closure of the park and had more to do with the enlightened desire of some Corner Brook residents to protect this awe-inspiring valley. Once again, surveys were conducted and public meetings were held. The debate about whether to protect Serpentine Lake was made moot when the oil and gas industry got involved. They “asked” government to forego any further conservation efforts in order to conduct exploration. In yet another strange development, government ultimately decided to establish the “Serpentine Lake Public Reserve” – a weird designation that in fact prohibits conservation action in order to allow for petroleum exploration.
For the most comprehensive and scholarly treatment of the park closures in the 1990s, see Professor James Overton’s essays.
Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.