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Missed Mandate, Missed Biology: The ongoing “Mother Canada” debacle in Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Opinion Piece – M. Alex Smith, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph (salex@uoguelph.ca; @Alex_Smith_Ants; www.malexsmith.weebly.com)

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Like many Canadians, I have been hearing more and more about the so-called “Mother Canada” development in Cape Breton Highlands National Park (CBHNP). Proposed by a combination of private funding in partnership with the federal government, this enormous 10-storey memorial is meant to “… be a place for remembrance and gratitude” to Canadians who have “fallen as a result of war and conflict”. Parks Canada has expressed direct support for this monument through actual monetary donations. The erection of such a memorial within a Canadian National Park has garnered much recent interest in the Canadian and international press.

Beyond any aesthetic concerns people may have about the specific plans, in my opinion, there are two critical problems with this monument. The first was pointed out in a Globe and Mail editorial of June 24 2015: it is redundant. Every town and city in Canada already has a memorial to those who have served and sacrificed. My second objection is a combined biological and sociological one. It concerns the location of a private funded monument within a Canadian National Park, where it appears very unclear what the ramifications of that action will be on the fauna in and around the proposed site. The mandate of Parks Canada is elegantly expressed in its charter, “To protect, as a first priority, the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole” while fostering “public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure the ecological and commemorative integrity of these places for present and future generations”. Indeed, 26 former senior Parks Canada managers wrote an open letter to the Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq detailing their objections and that such a plan, “is in violation of the site’s Wilderness Zone designation as detailed in the Management Plan for the Park”.

Beyond the effects of the actual physical construction on the park environment, the monument will potentially increase tourist traffic to the area. How will these changes affect the biota (both animal and plant) of the immediate area? Exactly how well known is that fauna? How was the effect on the sites and the adjacent park environment determined?

A detailed impact analysis was completed by Stantec Consulting Limited who concluded that the effects of the development are, “generally predicted to be negligible to moderate in magnitude”. Conclusions regarding the effect of the construction and development on the “wildlife” of CBHNP were based on a single terrestrial field survey of the locality and a consultation of a CBHNP sightings database. (Stantec is actually listed as a Partner and Supporter of the development). In the Stantec impact analysis, “wildlife” is exclusively mammals and birds. As an ecologist whose professional and personal life is replete with instances of being overwhelmed and delighted by the diversity of arthropods living coincidentally (and cryptically) with their better-studied vertebrate relatives, this raised some concerns.

So what can I offer? Well in 2009, I spent a wonderful time collecting arthropods in CBHNP as part of the BioBus program out of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph. In fact, four colleagues and I spent a night collecting insects at a site only 3 km away from the proposed development (Black Brook and the nearby Jack Pine Trail). The Jack Pine trail was particularly beautiful! The trail goes through a forest of Jack Pine that is more than 200km away from the rest of its range and has survived fire and spruce budworm infestation. At any rate, since all the data is publicly available online (dx.doi.org/10.5883/DS-ASCBHNP), I thought this would be an opportune time to explore those records in light of the planned “Mother Canada” development.

 

Figure 1: A high resolution GigaPan panorama taken at the Black Brook collection site (http://gigapan.com/gigapans/29312).

Figure 1: A high resolution GigaPan panorama taken at the Black Brook collection site (http://gigapan.com/gigapans/29312).

 

Figure 2: The collection team earlier in the trip in Terra Nova National Park Newfoundland.

Figure 2: The collection team earlier in the trip in Terra Nova National Park Newfoundland.

It was a beautiful night in 2009 (Jul-21) at Black Brook where we collected arthropods using two common methods (UV light (which means lots of moths!) and free-hand active search using insect nets). That night, in about four hours of collecting, we came away with 363 specimens from nearly 200 species (191 named and provisional species based on their DNA barcodes). To put this number in context, CBHNP has 200 species of bird – a total nearly matched for arthropods by our single nights work at one location! This diversity is only a small fraction of the diversity of arthropods currently protected by CBHNP. Via these DNA barcodes, (public on BOLD (www.barcodinglife.org, dx.doi.org/10.5883/DS-ASCBHNP) we can compare them to the > 4 million DNA barcode records representing >400,000 species worldwide on this database.

What we find from this comparison is that some of these species may be exceedingly rare. Despite concentrated collections in this and other National Parks before and since this night* there are four species which have been found only once out of these millions of records. While this diversity is currently protected by Parks Canada, it is within 3 km of the proposed “Mother Canada” development. It is unclear how the changes in traffic and construction from the development will affect this protected diversity.

Why bring this up now? What use is a rapid analysis of a single night’s collections? I decided to bring it up to call attention to numerous small and cryptic species in and around the location of the proposed development about which we know very little. Going ahead with an enormous private development within a National Park is a mistake that flies in the face of the mandate of Parks Canada – and does so without good evidence that it would not have negative effects on the diversity of animals that it was created to protect.

 

Figure 3: This neighbor-joining tree is a graphical representation of the diversity of nearly 200 species of arthropods collected at Black Brook in July 2009. The taxa are colour coded and are followed by the number of specimens we caught.

Figure 3: This neighbor-joining tree is a graphical representation of the diversity of nearly 200 species of arthropods collected at Black Brook in July 2009. The taxa are colour coded and are followed by the number of specimens we caught.

John Barber (a freelance journalist from Toronto) closed his recent article in the Guardian newspaper with a marvelous quote from Valerie Bird, a WWII veteran and resident of Cape Breton, “It is vulgar and ostentatious,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t belong in a national park, and I don’t think its going to do a darn thing for veterans.” “I think the idea of this horrible thing offends veterans,” she added. “I find it difficult to find words. This is a monstrosity.”

Not simply a monstrosity – but one contrary to of the principle mandate of Parks Canada, “to protect, as a first priority, the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole”. Ultimately, this is the essence of the problem. This issue is more than a simple discussion regarding the aesthetics of a >$25 million, >25-metre tall conglomeration of private and corporate citizens (in apparent partnership with our federal government). If a private group wants to erect a memorial on private grounds and can raise the money for their monument – it is certainly their prerogative. This is a critical discussion about the mandate of Parks Canada and specifically how well they protect the natural heritage resident within that Park.

To place this monument in a National Park is not the right of any private group. To consider placing such a monument in a National Park without careful consideration of the most diverse Park residents (insects, spiders and their kin) is not simply poor planning; it’s poor management and should be stopped.

* -Since that evening in 2009, the BioBus has continued to collaborate with Parks Canada in Cape Breton Highlands National Park and now even more is known about the vast diversity of small and important insects from other areas within this National Park. Collections of arthropods have now been made for 3000 species! For more information about those collections visit the reports section at www.biobus.ca. The author has no current association with the BioBus program. All specimens analysed here are publically available via the public data portal of the Barcode of Life Data System (dx.doi.org/10.5883/DS-ASCBHNP).

Useful websites:

Thanks to Morgan Jackson for helpful thoughts on an earlier draft of this post.
Figure 4 – Shareable infographic outlining information & data presented in this article. Please feel free to circulate.

Figure 4 – Shareable infographic outlining information & data presented in this article. Please feel free to circulate.

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2 comments on “Missed Mandate, Missed Biology: The ongoing “Mother Canada” debacle in Cape Breton Highlands National Park

  1. Thanks for this. Believe me, the cavalier manner in which Stantec glossed over the flora/fauna issue was not limited to that singular discussion. Throughout the entire Detailed Impact Analysis Stantec glossed over serious environmental impacts it was mandated to seriously consider.

    If Parks Canada accepts Stantec’s conflict-of-interest soaked DIA, Parks’ credibility will suffer immeasurable damage. Its initial acceptance of the project plus the later revelation of its monetary contribution to the project has already begun the undermining process.

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