Pummelling Parks: Government budget amputates core services

Part one of a two-part series on the cuts to parks and reserves.

“We are listening to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and we will continue to focus on priority areas that are important to our province,” said Premier Dunderdale in the House of Assembly on March 25, 2013.

Her words were in reference to the 2013 provincial budget. Given the outcry over the announced cuts, many people appear to have a different opinion about what areas are important for our province. I, for one, certainly do.

This column is the first in a two-part series on the cuts made to our parks and reserves system. This column will focus on cuts to reserve staff while my next column will discuss the (ridiculous) elimination of the park interpreters. The government agency responsible for these areas is called ‘Parks and Natural Areas Division’. For sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to the organization as “Parks”.

In a previous column, I showed how the Department of Environment and Conservation (which includes Parks) received the highest proportion of layoffs of any government department, despite having one of the lowest budgets. A quick look at the budget for Parks shows that it too took a disproportionately high reduction – about 9.5% (see page 9.11 of the provincial budget). But, given the Parks budget was so low to begin with, these cuts will directly impact front line services. You hear various euphemisms about budget cuts: ‘these cuts went deep’ or ‘they cut right to the bone’. Well, the cuts to Parks amount to an amputation. Specifically, staff were cut at the Cape St. Mary’s, Witless Bay and Burnt Cape Ecological Reserves.

Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve Manager

Cape St. Mary’s is famous, as far as Newfoundland natural areas go. This spectacular seabird colony is the subject of the ballad, Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s, one of the most powerful Newfoundland folk songs. The cliffs of the cape support well over 60,000 nesting seabirds. Large, fierce-eyed Northern Gannets rule Bird Rock, a 100 meter sea stack that is so close to the walking trail that you feel like you’re standing in the middle of the birds. This is only one of six areas where they nest in North America. The gannets are joined by tens of thousands of Common Murre and Black-legged Kittiwakes along with several other species in lesser numbers. Ravens are a common sight at the Cape and they prey on eggs and small chicks. But the fear instilled by the ravens is nothing like the terror I observed in the birds when I saw a Bald Eagle calmly soar past the cliffs. In an act of communal defence, virtually every bird in the reserve left their nest and began flying in a giant cyclone aimed at the eagle (it’s called mobbing). The eagle, seemingly unperturbed, went slowly on its way. My point here is that Cape St. Mary’s is more than just a road side attraction – it’s a world class natural spectacle.

Originally protected by the Provincial Government in 1967, the tourism potential of the Cape was recognized in 1994 when a visitor centre was opened and the narrow access road was paved. Visitation soared from around 3-5,000 people annually to over 20,000. This level of visitation has visibly impacted the economy of the surrounding area, with motels and restaurants in the local community of St. Brides. As stated in the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act, the Cape is “…to provide for scientific research and educational purposes…”. Local schools have been engaged at the Cape and it has become a subject of some pride.

Not only does the reserve protect nesting habitat, it also protects overwintering habitat. In the 1950s hundreds of Harlequin Ducks were observed in the area. Unfortunately, this number declined to the point where the species was listed as Endangered in 1990. With the new visitor centre, staff were hired from the local area. One of these staff members went on to become the first manager for the Reserve. I always admired his courage. We’ll never know the abuse he suffered from some local residents – I heard of one story where he was cornered on a wharf after suggesting that people shouldn’t shoot endangered species. In any event, due to his efforts (and those of others) the Harlequin Duck population rose to the point where it was “delisted” to ‘Special Concern’ in 2001, and in 2009 the numbers had reached levels observed in the 1950s. To me, this manager was the “Mike Nolan” of the Cape – a reference to the man who single-handedly saved the Avalon Caribou herd in the 1960s and 70s.

No more. I guess a summer student is now expected do everything this manager did.

Witless Bay Ecological Reserve Manager

Puffins nest in the burrows above while Common Murres nest in the rock shelves on Gull Island at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Puffins nest in the burrows above while Common Murres nest in the rock shelves, on Gull Island at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Unlike the Cape, Witless Bay has only recently benefited from the presence of a manager. By the way, as far as I know, both of these positions were only seasonal during the spring and summer – clearly an outrageous expense (note the sarcasm). Witless Bay is a more traditional seabird colony, with more than 1,000,000 seabirds nesting on four islands. Most of you would be familiar with this reserve through one of the excellent boat tours offered from several communities along the coast. The second most visited site after Gros Morne National Park, the Witless Bay islands established a strong tourism economy in that area long before we saw any oil wealth (and, hopefully, will continue to after). The challenges to the reserve have never been greater, with a marine terminal facility in Bay Bulls, increasing tour boat traffic, fish harvesting, on-shore development, recreational boating, sea kayaking – the list goes on. None of these things are inherently destructive, but, despite best intentions, bad things can happen. We have to get it right – seven out of ten Atlantic Puffins in North America call this reserve home.

If this reserve were anywhere else in Atlantic Canada, it would be a central showcase to their tourism industry. Take Machias/Seal Island, for example. This small island located off New Brunswick’s coast is actually the source of a territorial dispute between the U.S. and Canada. It is celebrated throughout the Maritimes and featured prominently in New Brunswick’s tourism promotion. There are about 2,500 Atlantic Puffins on the island, or about 1% of the puffin numbers in Witless Bay. The number of puffins is so (relatively) low that they probably have their own names. In fact, Machias/Seal Island was populated with puffins from Witless Bay in the 1970s in a (successful) attempt to reintroduce them.

Maybe the abundance of puffins (and other wildlife) leads us to take it for granted. Why else would government deem it unnecessary to have a seasonal on-site manager for part of the year? According to the Premier, this will protect the reserve “…more efficiently through innovation and streamlining, with a view to improving the service…”. Really? The reserve will be managed from Parks headquarters in Deer Lake – just around the corner, about 800 kilometres away.

Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve Staff

Unlike Cape St. Mary’s or Witless Bay, Burnt Cape doesn’t count its visitors in the tens of thousands. Instead, several hundred people visit this stark, fascinating place annually. Underlain by limestone, Burnt Cape presents visitors with an alien experience.

There is no soil to speak of. Instead, the ground is made of perfectly formed limestone gravel – the same you would use in a walkway. It’s no wonder local developers attempted to level the Burnt Cape (literally) – the gravel is ready made for several industrial uses. In one of the few locally driven protection movements I’ve seen in the province, the local residents of Raleigh and other towns actually stood in front of machinery to prevent this from happening. Their main reason for opposing the extraction was that reducing the height of Burnt Cape from 60 metres or so to around 10 metres would destroy their view – the horizon that they watched during sunset. But, in doing so, they helped protect one of the most important botanical areas in North America.

Burnt Cape was established as an Ecological Reserve in 2000. It supports over 30 rare plants. With more than 300 rare plants on the Island of Newfoundland, this makes the reserve the most important in the Province for sheer volume. There are species at Burnt Cape that are found in only a few other locations on the planet. The real kicker is, you could walk all day on Burnt Cape and not notice a single one. They’re shorter than your thumb.

That’s why reserve staff are so important. You are allowed to drive on an existing dirt road in the reserve (a concession to the local residents) but, I guarantee you, as soon as you step foot out of your car and off the road, you’re walking on rare plants. Some of these plants, such as Fernald’s Braya, are legally protected. You could be charged for walking on one of these plants – inadvertently or not. The two guides hired during the summer would prevent this by giving wonderfully colorful tours. They were local women who were not formally trained as botanists. They invariably charmed visitors and have spoken about the reserve in Canada and the US. I know – I watched with admiration when I was a guide on an adventure cruise.

But, I guess the high cost of two local residents working a few months during the summer was just too high a price to pay for the extraordinary service they gave to visitors and our natural legacy.
These are “core services”.

Tens of thousands of visitors. Globally significant natural areas. Real and emerging threats to our natural legacy. Yet, I fear, these reasons will not be “compelling” enough to have these cuts reversed. For that to happen, decision makers would have to place value on the birds, plants and animals that these reserves protect. How much do these few seasonal positions cost? Certainly not more than $250,000. This money wouldn’t make the tiniest difference either way to the education or health budgets. No, these sorts of decisions speak to ideology, not wise fiscal management. Like the birds at Cape St. Mary’s, I wish the public of Newfoundland and Labrador would leap from our nests to protect these important positions.

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