R.I.P. Parks and Wildlife Divisions

Recent provincial government restructuring included the destruction of Parks and Natural Areas Division and the dismantling of Wildlife Division.

On Feb. 22 the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced details of a restructuring initiative aimed at downsizing the number of civil servants and creating a “flatter, leaner structure” for the public service.

Two hundred eighty-seven management positions were eliminated and some departments were reorganized and renamed. The issue which has precipitated the greatest backlash was the removal of the word “culture” from a departmental name.  “We are really feeling like we are not wanted here,” said one artist recently. Her voice and outrage over this act was shared and echoed by many, and the government finally relented and put culture back in that department’s name.

I only wish that my concerns were limited to simple nomenclature.

Instead, I must struggle with the fact that Parks and Natural Areas Division no longer exists and Wildlife Division has been effectively dismantled. Let’s look at what they did to parks with some necessary background first.

Parks are more than tourism camping loops

Parks and Natural Areas Division was first established more than 60 years ago, in 1956. The agency was ultimately responsible for provincial parks, wilderness and ecological reserves and heritage rivers.

From 1956 to the late 1970s, more than 70 parks were established due to public recreational demand but also to protect our natural heritage. Newfoundland parks were not just simply camping loops. Except for small roadside rest stops, most were several hundred hectares in size, dwarfing other parks found in Atlantic Canada.

I  predict the impacts of this move will be manifold and disastrous.

In the 1990s, under the mantra that “parks are for people,” the conservation role of parks was forgotten and 56 parks were eliminated. It seems as if we’re revisiting those happy times because the parks mandate for the division has been removed and placed under the department responsible for tourism.

I predict the impacts of this move will be manifold and disastrous.

The conservation role of our parks will be ignored. They will become developed mini theme parks even though previous attempts to commercialize these precious spaces have failed and only resulted in habitat destruction and lawsuits. The parks will be reduced in size and mowed down for golf courses – anything to increase the “tourism value” of these protected areas. If you don’t think these predications can happen, you haven’t been paying attention because we’ve seen it all before.

The Wilderness and Ecological Reserves program demoted and hidden away

Perhaps a more serious error, the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves program of Parks and Natural Areas Division have been moved to the new Department of Fisheries and Land Resources.

Unlike the rest of the Western World, Newfoundland has not significantly increased the number of reserves in the past 20 years. As a result, we are near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to protected areas across Canada, with just a little over 7 percent of our province protected compared to the national average of 10.6 perent.

This is despite repeated promises from all political parties, including the current Liberal administration, to finalize the Natural Areas System Plan and release it. This plan is a massive undertaking and could conceivably result in our protected areas system doubling in size. That means the few people left in the reserves program would be responsible for designing and establishing many reserves which would total an area larger than the Province of Prince Edward Island.

But who am I kidding? Nesting a few people in the fisheries department means that this plan will never see the light of day. The highest ranking person directly responsible for the program will be a junior manager. They’ll be lucky to get the plan on the department’s agenda, let alone on Cabinet’s.

And to think I wrote a column expressing optimism about the Liberal government’s conservation commitments. More the fool, am I.

An ideological attack on conservation science

Wildlife Division, while enjoying the retention of its name, has been effectively destroyed as a wildlife science agency. The scale of the cuts are difficult to comprehend. Seven out of 11 managers have been eliminated. That’s 63 percent, or nearly two-thirds, of the senior staff.

According to the provincial government, they’ve eliminated 17 percent of managers across the board – some agencies must have escaped the knife (again). Wildlife Division has clearly been targeted with a Trump-like ideological aversion to science. The eliminated positions were highly specialized and required unique skill sets. It’s not like accounting, where you can conduct an audit regardless of the companies’ line of business.

Here’s what I’ve been able to glean regarding the cuts:

  • Four wildlife research managers
  • The wetland/stewardship biologist
  • The environmental assessment biologist
  • Manager for endangered species

Apparently, the attack on science was extended to Forestry, where several forest ecologists and the manager for forest science were eliminated also.

There were reasonable alternatives

Now, I fully agree with a “Flatter, Leaner Management Structure” in government. Indeed, I argue that in a province with little over 500,000 people we do not need any Assistant Deputy Ministers. Instead, directors could have been given greater responsibility and accountability. Since the number of favours owed meant this was never going to happen, there were still reasonable and rational alternatives.

Photo by Jon James Myers.
Photo courtesy Jonathan Myers Photography.

Both Parks and Wildlife could have been merged into one division. Savings could have been found in many areas, including administrative costs, shared field work resources, purchasing, etc. Some management positions could have been merged and, although a few people would have lost their jobs, we would not have seen the eradication of wildlife science.

The attacks on our parks and wildlife divisions have been going on for years. Puppet supporters of this initiative, like the NL Employers’ Council, say things like government “had no choice because the province can’t afford to have the largest public service in Canada.”

I agree, but it is a mistake to support cuts without taking the effort to see the nature and extent of those cuts. This speaks to a blind ideology and destroys any real credibility on the matter. People like this will often spout the statistics that show we have the highest proportion of civil servants in the country. Well, I’d like to know which departments were hiring because the number of employees in parks and wildlife has been going down for years:

  • Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Environment and Conservation (including parks and wildlife) took the highest proportion of layoffs in the 2013 budget.
  • Provincial Park Interpretation Program was eliminated in 2013 (guided hikes, campfire sing-a-longs, children’s activities, etc.)
  • Reserve manager positions have been eliminated.
  • Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Science was eliminated.
  • Phased elimination of the Inland Fish Research Program within the overall research program.
  • Winter closure of Butter Pot, Notre Dame, and Barachois Pond Parks
  • Small game and furbearer research programs were eliminated.

It is difficult to write a piece like this for several reasons. I know many of the people involved and admire their professionalism, dedication and knowledge. I find it frustrating that the care and study of our natural environment is abhorrent to many of our leaders. And, worst of all, I know there are not enough concerned citizens to effect any real rollback or change.

If only there were as many voices concerned with our natural environment as there are with the word ‘culture’.

Douglas Ballam has worked in the conservation field for three decades, with federal and provincial governments as well as non-government organizations. He believes that protected areas are one of the highest benefits a government can provide its citizens. He lives in Mt. Pearl with his wife Bridget and children Katie and Andrew.

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