Protecting the wilderness: parks in Nunavut

There’s a need for parks, even in the great North

Over Christmas, my wife and I spent a few days in Banff National Park. Most of that was in Banff itself, where we did some shopping downtown, ate in a lot of good restaurants, and sat in pubs watching the Canadian World Junior team’s too-good-to-be-true winning streak. We rode the gondola up Sulphur Mountain, drove the Bow Valley Parkway to hike the Johnson Valley Canyon, and then went to visit a friend who works in Lake Louise.

You can’t deny that Banff National Park’s snow-covered mountains, lush forests, pristine lakes and rivers make some spectacular scenery. There is wildlife everywhere (we watched a white-tailed deer eat the rosebushes in front of one of Banff’s churches), and Lake Louise is an absolute winter wonderland in December, with its trees covered in deep soft snow and the lake turned into a skating rink. As my friend put it, it’s like living in a snow globe.

But you also can’t deny that Banff National Park is no longer exactly wilderness. Hotels and golf courses are almost as prominent as the mountains, and the number of skiers and tourists make Banff a small city. While encouraging visitors has been a priority of the park since its inception, it’s sometimes hard to determine where the wilderness protection ends and the tourist trap begins. Or maybe it’s better to say that Banff National Park is a place where people and the environment intersect in a way that only makes sense in a national park.

Parks in Nunavut

While people are generally familiar with parks like Banff and Jasper, and Terra Nova and Gros Morne back in Newfoundland, parks in Nunavut are less well-known, and definitely see far less traffic than a place like Banff or even Gros Morne. While parks in the north are still accessible for those with the skills and determination to explore the more remote regions of Canada, this is not weekend warrior territory.

While parks in the north are still accessible…this is not weekend warrior territory.

Nunavut is home to four national parks. Quttinirpaaq National Park is Canada’s northernmost national park, located on the northern end of Ellesmere Island. Comprising 39,500 square kilometres, it is also Canada’s second largest. Sirmilik National Park consists of 22,200 square kilometres in the northern end of Baffin Island. Auyuittuq National Park is 19,089 square kilometres farther south on Baffin Island, and Ukkusiksalik National Park contains 20,000 square kilometres of land surrounding Wager Bay on the west side of Hudson Bay. Together, these four national parks contain over 100,000 square kilometres of arctic tundra and glaciers, along with a huge diversity of plant and animal life. By comparison, Gros Morne and Terra Nova together are only 2,205 square kilometres.

The Government of Nunavut has always made the recognition of, respect for, and protection of the landscape a guiding principle, and it has established many territorial parks, heritage rivers, and special areas: too many to list here (see for details and visitor info). There are also wildlife conservation areas such as the McConnell River Bird Sanctuary located south of Arviat.

The need for parks in the North

Low population density, visitor traffic, and wide open spaces are all defining features of the north, and the idea of wilderness and unspoiled landscape are common perceptions. And the north is indeed huge. There is an incredible, almost incomprehensible amount of open space and very few people to fill it. In these conditions, you might ask why it’s necessary to have such huge expanses of land protected as parks, when it seems like there is little around to threaten them.

Last weekend we went with a few people on a hunting trip. Temperatures were approaching -40 without the windchill, and it’s rough riding in a komatik across the frozen land. Although we were glad to get back to our warm house, it was impossible not to appreciate the beauty of the winter tundra, the plants that survive the winter temperatures, the caribou roaming the land, and the arctic foxes like the one that kept circling us curiously when we stopped to make tea. Someone  mentioned that it’s quite possible that we were the first humans he had ever seen, and it was surprising to realize that he was quite likely right.

…it’s hard to think of the northern landscape as fragile, but like any ecosystem it is vulnerable.

On the trip home, lying back in a komatik with the stars overhead and the moon bright on the snow, it’s hard to think of the northern landscape as fragile, but like any ecosystem it is vulnerable. As we got nearer to Arviat, the number of snowmobile tracks increased dramatically, and it was easy to see the impact that heavy traffic could have on the land.

Although northern parks don’t get the kind of traffic that southern parks do, they are still important to ensure the continuance and preservation of delicate ecosystems. As climate change, technological advancements and increased interest in mineral and oil exploration increase the accessibility of and traffic in the north, it’s important to recognize that the land needs machinery like national parks to balance the economic need to develop resources with the environmental and cultural need to protect both the environment and the plant and animal life it contains, as well as a way of life that is inextricably tied to the land and that has already seen plenty of change in the last century.

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