Over the centuries humans have impacted the landscape of Gatineau Park. We have done so by hunting, trapping, logging, farming, mining, and more recently by residential, commercial and recreational development.
These stresses generate a cumulative impact on the environment that is greater than the impact of any one or more individual stresses, degrading the park's ecosystems.
Urbanization is the single greatest threat to the ecological integrity of Gatineau Park. The park is too small to ensure the long-term viability of certain species. Without a comprehensive land-use strategy for surrounding lands, the viability of Gatineau Park is in jeopardy. An additional 20,000 people are expected to populate the park periphery by 2020.
A critical problem for Gatineau Park is the absence of a buffer zone between the park and adjacent development. Because development has been allowed to proceed up to the park boundary, certain species that are sensitive to hu man presence avoid the park's outer edges. This, in effect, shrinks the size of the park in terms of its value to these species. Conversely, large resident mammals such as moose and bear are increasingly seen in suburban Gatineau where expansion is steadily reducing the remaining buffer.
Urbanization has consumed a considerable amount of the natural and agri cultural lands around Gatineau Park, as well as ecological connectivity from the park to these lands. This threatens those species, notably large predators such as wolves and bears, that require a range larger than the park itself can provide. With increasing urbanization comes the very real threat that these species will eventually disappear from the park. Also, urbanization begets road development and the resultant stresses of habitat fragmentation and wildlife fatalities.
Development also occurs on the approximately 2% of Gatineau Park that is privately owned. This land involves some 200 properties which come under the jurisdiction of the municipalities of Chelsea, Gatineau, La Pêche, and Pontiac, not the NCC. The largest holdings are highly vulnerable to subdivision development. For example, several years ago the municipality of Chelsea approved an 18 house residential development on Carmen Road, south of Highway 105. Land was cleared and some roads built before project was halted and much of the land purchased by the NCC, thanks to public pressure from a coalition of CPAWS and other like-minded organizations and individuals.
Most private ownership is concentrated along the Meech Lake, Kingsmere Lake, and Chemin de la Montagne corridors. For many reasons, residential development does not conform with the zoning in Gatineau Park. More and bigger homes and associated boat houses have a permanent footprint. When trees are felled to make way for roads, driveways, yards and patios, erosion is inevitable. Runoff and waste water threaten water quality and aquatic habitats. Gardens, bird feeders and backyard composters attract wildlife, which often come into conflict with humans. Private ownership and development also affects the publics ability to fully enjoy the park due to access restrictions.
While urban encroachment is a grave concern, development within Gatineau Park itself is also a significant stress. These developments include new or expanded infrastructure to accommodate the increasing visitation, such as roads, parking lots, buildings, trails and ski lifts. The "institutional zone" along Boulevard Cité-des-Jeunes includes a government training centre, two colleges, a secondary school, and a municipal sports centre – all uses of park land extraneous to the park's mission.
Forty km of parkways and more than 60 km of local municipal roads cut into or through Gatineau Park. The road network is concentrated in the south, closest to the urban center. In the past 25 years several new roads have been built, including the high-speed St. Raymond Boulevard, which bisects the park, and a new access road to Mackenzie King Estate. The long-fought extension to McConnell-Laramée Boulevard, now known as Boulevard des Allumettières, cuts a wide swath through the park near Lac des Fées and opened to traffic in late 2007. Autoroute 5 is presently being extended along the eastern boundary of the park. Many other roads have been widened or otherwise upgraded. Unfortunately, even more roads are planned. Looming as a further threat to the park's ecological integrity is the potential extension of Autoroute 50 through the park south of Pink Lake.
In addition to negatively impacting visitor enjoyment of the park, roads and road traffic have many serious ecological impacts. In Gatineau Park, the two most serious are wildlife fatalities and habitat fragmentation.
Wildlife fatalities: Animals large (deer) or small (mice), swift (coyotes) or slow (frogs) are routinely killed along roads, as a drive along any rural road illustrates. Most vulnerable are amphibians, snakes and turtles. Their life cycles often require them to migrate between wetland and upland habitats, and thus to cross roads. Higher traffic speeds result in higher mortality rates. A springtime walk along the roadways of Gatineau Park provides evidence of the high road mortality of frogs. Habitat fragmentation: Roads (as well as electricity corridors and other rights-of-way, and even trails) interfere with animal movement, separating populations and reducing genetic diversity. By cutting through and breaking up continuous tracts of habitat, roads reduce the amount of interior habitat available to species. The resultant smaller tracts of habitat may not be large enough to support some species. By opening up the forest canopy, roads create a new micro climate that may extend up to 200 m on either side of the roadway. These large strips of land along the roadsides will be sunnier and drier than the interior of the forest, and will favour weedy species that do not thrive in an intact forest. The habitat created by a road may also be more vulnerable to invasive species of plants or animals. The extensive network of roads in Gatineau Park has severely reduced the amount of interior habitat in some areas of the park and has seriously damaged their ecosystems.
Gatineau Park's natural beauty, its diverse recreational opportunities, and its proximity to Ottawa-Gatineau make it very attractive and accessible. The park currently draws an estimated 1.7 million visits annually, making it one of the most popular parks in Canada.
Visitors to Gatineau Park can participate in a wide variety of recreational activities. In spring, summer and fall they can access 165 km of hiking trails (90 km open to cyclists), 20 km of paved recreational pathways, seven self-guided interpretation trails, a mountain bike trail network, 14 picnic areas, six public beaches, two campgrounds and a number of canoe-camping sites. In winter they can enjoy 200 km of cross-country ski trails, 25 km of snowshoe trails, a downhill ski area and a biathlon training centre.
Recreational activities are concentrated in the south of the park. This area includes much of the park's internal road network, many of its most impor tant cultural attributes, and major recreational infrastructure including Ski Camp Fortune. Recreational use is also concentrated around or adjacent to Pink, Meech, Philippe, Taylor and La Pêche lakes, and Luskville Falls. These areas of intense recreational activity, as well as the entire ecologically sensi tive Eardley Escarpment, experience considerable ecological stresses from recreation. Increased recreational use during peak visitation periods (e.g., Fall Rhapsody) further stress the park's ecology. Whether strolling, hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, cross-country ski ing, paddling or swimming, every visitor has an impact on the park — tram pled plants, compacted soil, erosion, spooked wildlife, litter, sunscreen washed into the water. Such seemingly small impacts, when multiplied by a million or more visitors each year, can cause considerable ecological change.
In addition to permitted activities, several inappropriate or unauthorized activities take place in the park. Snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and motorboats with two-stroke engines gener ate air, water and noise pollution, and stress wildlife and other park visitors. Cutting and using unofficial trails fragment and damage ecosystems and disturb wildlife. Bush parties leave a legacy of litter and tree damage.
To help safeguard Gatineau Park's natural heritage, visitors must be cognizant of the impacts their activities can have on nature. All visitors should take individu al responsibility to minimize their ecological footprint.
The invasion of harmful non-native species is second only to habi tat destruction in terms of impact on natural landscapes. In Canada's national parks, invasive species have been the main cause of changes in species composition. Roads are the primary pathway for the inadvertent intro duction and spread of non-native plant species into parks. People also introduce, deliberately or inadvertently, non-native plant and animal species without an understanding of the consequences.
In Gatineau Park, 37 plant species have been documented as non-native. Ten of these are considered to be "extremely invasive." These include the infamous wetlands alien, purple loosestrife, and the lake-carpeting Eurasian water-milfoil. Both of these species severely threaten and reduce the diversity of native aquatic vegetation. Milfoil, which is currently pres ent in at least La Pêche and Philippe lakes, may also impact populations of fish species. Boating activity is a factor in the proliferation of these two highly invasive species. In woodland habitats, garlic mustard threatens native plant species. The introduction of non-native fish species has disrupted the natural ecology of many Gatineau Park lakes, and is likely responsible for the decline and loss of some native species. Sport fish species that have been introduced include north ern pike, smallmouth bass, rainbow trout and yellow perch. Other species such as white sucker, pumpkinseed and fathead minnow, were likely introduced as bait fish. Although not yet present in the park, the extremely invasive zebra mussel remains a looming threat to the park's aquatic ecosystems.
Gatineau Park is now home to several species of invasive birds, notably the European starling, American crow, common grackle and brown-headed cow bird. These opportunistic and competitive species are most common in open areas and forest edges, and often displace native species. The park's extensive road network and urban encroachment have facilitated the proliferation of these species.
Climate change will impact Gatineau Park's ecology both directly and in directly in the coming decades. Projections for the Ottawa-Gatineau region suggest increased climate variability as well as more precipitation, heat waves and freezing rain events. Rising temperatures will force species to shift their ranges northwards, stress ing species adapted to cooler temperatures and significantly altering both the extent and composition of ecological communities. As habitat becomes less suitable for some spe cies, habitat loss will likely increase their risk of extinction, and a "greater park ecosystem" approach to park management will become critical.
Two other serious threats of climate change are the increased risks of wildfires and species invasions — for example, forest insects. Both will threaten biodiversity and the health of ecosystems. In addition, the park is expected to face increased stress through indirect effects of climate change. For example, as the winter season shortens, annual visitation is projected to increase, intensifying recreational stresses.
Ecosystem protection is an important buffer for climate change. Intact forests sequester carbon, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Small, isolated protected areas like Gatineau Park have limited ability to conserve biological diversity because development around the park does not allow sufficient habitat for large predators. The most effective way to protect biodiversity is through a network of protected areas, each surrounded by a buffer zone, with connectivity between protected areas and sustainable land uses on these intermediate lands. When protected areas are connected, wild life can migrate into and out of the protected areas to access food or secure nesting or denning sites.
The only viable way to counter the threat of urbanization around Gatineau Park is to plan and manage the surrounding landscape so critical lands and waters outside the park are protected from development and wildlife can roam between these lands and the park. While connectivity still exists across the rural landscape in many areas, such as along the Eardley Escarpment, it is rapidly disappearing in others. The NCC's stated vision is to pre serve and support "viable levels of all the indigenous [native species] populations that were present in 2006," and to increase "key species populations, especially species considered to be at risk." To do this requires management of the greater ecosystem – in other words, planning and supporting conservation across a very large surrounding landscape. Unfortunately, the NCC presently does not have the capacity to do this. Moreover, Quebec conservation laws and hunting regulations provide little protection for preda tors that require large ranges, such as bears and wolves, in the regions surrounding Gatineau Park. National Park status for Gatineau Park would help to develop a greater ecosystem management approach, which would address the conservation needs of large predators and other wildlife.
Other opportunities for maintaining a healthy ecosystem should also be considered. For example, designating the Gatineau Hills as a UNESCO biosphere reserve would encourage local residents and organizations to develop, promote and organize projects linking conservation with social and economic develop ment in the region. Currently Canada has 13 such biosphere reserves, including Charlevoix and Lac St. Pierre in Quebec and Niagara Escarpment and Thousand Islands - Frontenac Arch in Ontario.