Governance of Gatineau Park: A discussion with Michael Lait
Michael Lait, a Postdoctoral Researcher and Instructor with the Department of Sociology at Vancouver Island University, has a history with CPAWS Ottawa Valley (CPAWS OV) and Gatineau Park dating back to 2011. We had the chance to chat with him about his new book, Governance of Near-Urban Conservation Areas: Lessons from the conflicts surrounding Gatineau Park near Ottawa, Canada and his thoughts on conservation in Gatineau Park.
Where did your passion for environmental conservation come from?
It arose during my Master’s, which focused on Canadian climate change policy in the early 2000s. For my PhD, I wanted to highlight local issues and Gatineau Park became the focal point after a summer internship with CPAWS-OV to explore the chapter’s history.
That’s when I learned that Gatineau Park isn’t a national park. The more research I did on the park, the more I realized how much we didn’t know about the history of its conservation issues, such as those around private land ownership.
It’s my hope this book can make an impact on the park’s political situation. As a park in name only, Gatineau Park is such a vulnerable part of our natural community.
Can you tell me more about what you learned from the project with CPAWS-OV?
I was researching the chapter’s history and speaking to past members who were fundamental in its early years (who are included in the acknowledgments of my book). They were at the forefront in the emerging conservation movement and getting to learn about their activism on Gatineau Park and scientific work were treasured experiences for me.
I quickly realized that a lot of the existing research on the park focused on the period of its creation in the 1930s, but not as much research was done for the period after. We know a lot about its very early history, but not much more, especially about the 1960s and 1970s when CPAWS-OV first came onto the scene.
This put me on the path to fill the gaps in Gatineau Park’s history and what needed to be studied, with special attention to how CPAWS OV fit into the park’s governance.
What were some of your findings?
If CPAWS OV had been listened to earlier, I don’t think we would have a major highway severing connections between the park and Gatineau River, having a negative impact on wildlife. Instead of being guided by the technical expertise and scientific knowledge of CPAWS-OV, the park has, more often than not, been administered according to the dictates of local residents, which has proven highly problematic to the park’s conservation.
Gatineau Park is a shadow of what it could have been. The park was proposed as the first in a system of near-urban national parks across Canada. Every major city was supposed to have one and what better place to start than Canada’s capital!
Your book looks at four themes: boundaries, conservation science, private property, and federal legislation. Can you shed light on each of these, starting with issues regarding boundaries?
Currently, the park’s boundaries aren’t clearly marked so visitors and private property owners alike don’t always know where the park begins and ends. A lack of clearly defined and communicated boundaries causes management and administrative problems for the National Capital Commission (NCC) as well.
Interestingly, the boundary problem result in territoriality exercised by private owners.
This feeling of territoriality from property owners doesn’t end with their own properties, though. We’ve seen throughout the history of Gatineau Park that private property owners will go beyond their own property to control the surrounding parklands. Examples are the disputes about the use of Meech Lake Road with a gate to limit public access among the proposals, as well as rules around public use of Kingmsere and Meech Lake.
In addition to problems with territoriality, we know that if you want a functioning ecosystem, you need to be able to expand the boundaries of the park. Many sections in the southern area have already been urbanized and can no longer be considered conservation lands, though. CPAWS OV recommended annexing these areas, resulting in the municipalities becoming responsible for the land, and expanding the northern section which has much less development.
CPAWS OV recommended this in 1972, before ecological corridors were a well-known concept. In the 80s, the chapter was yet again at the forefront of connectivity science pushing the NCC to begin studying potential corridors.
So, the NCC needs a legal definition for boundaries and a mechanism for how to expand these areas.
In the 1990s, the NCC launched a boundary rationalization exercise in an attempt to update the park boundaries. Without approval from the federal government, the NCC began unilaterally selling and acquiring lands. A lack of consensus on the park’s boundaries and parliamentary oversight has led to where we are today, with owners exercising control over surrounding parklands and the NCC unable to get anywhere with ecological corridors.
Can you explain issues about conservation science in Gatineau Park?
The NCC didn’t embrace conservation science until the 1990 master plan. Part of the challenge is NCC’s lack of internal capacity to take on this work and, as a result, they often contract conservation science projects to external consultants.
The lack of capacity at the NCC is part of the argument for Parks Canada managing Gatineau Park as they have expertise more readily available.
Another challenge with respect to conservation science is competing priorities for the NCC. In the late 80s, they completed a major rehabilitation of Pink Lake but simultaneously a subdivision was being proposed right next door. The NCC had to expropriate the land, one of the most expensive in the history of Gatineau Park, setting back their ability to purchase other lands for conservation purposes.
And what about private property?
When Gatineau Park was established, the NCC expropriated lands here and there but eventually, after some intense controversy, they decided to expand the park by only acquiring private properties on a willing seller basis.
This has caused many challenges.
First, this approach has stalled adding land to the park because property owners want to sell their property at higher than fair value. When land acquisition is done piecemeal, it costs the NCC much more in the long-term.
The gradual acquisition of private property in Gatineau Park has been NCC’s messaging for a long time. This gives owners a sense of permanent residency in the park, though. No deadline means no urgency to leave.
This also relates to issues of territoriality: when the NCC wants to, for example, create a new beach at Meech Lake, property owners feel they should have a say about what happens in the park without understanding they won’t be there forever.
Development on private property lands is also incompatible with environmental conservation. A past example is when owners near the Camp Fortune area wanted to build a motel and cottages along Meech Lake Road. The NCC stepped in and expropriated the land, otherwise the surrounding environment would have been left vulnerable.
What federal legislation issues do you highlight in your book?
The approach to legislation for Gatineau Park has proceeded to get to where we are today.
There are no studies showing the legislative history of Gatineau Park, so I covered this ground in my book. I believe we’ve reached a general consensus and CPAWS OV has been instrumental in getting us to this point.
Bills protecting Gatineau Park were initially based on the National Parks Act, but it quickly became clear that some aspects didn’t work due to the unique nature of the park. Consensus emerged when the NCC itself was reviewed by the federal government and CPAWS, alongside other conservation organizations, stated that Gatineau Park requires legislation with five pillars focused on conservation: protecting the park’s ecological integrity; setting the boundaries in law with changes requiring parliamentary approval, dedicating the park to present and future generations, , and mandating the NCC to expand the park through both ecological corridors and by acquiring remaining private lands.
What’s the most important takeaway from your book?
The park’s history could have been otherwise.
The original goal of having a national park in every major city was a fantastic opportunity to connect people to nature and conserve our environment. Most national parks are remote, so the ability to have a near-urban one is quite rare. Gatineau Park could have been the prototype with others across the country modeled after its success.
The benefit of near-urban national parks to the overall system would be immense. As recreational uses compatible with conservation objectives would be permitted even encouraged in the near-urban parks, this would reduce impacts from human activity on the more remote wilderness areas in Canada’s national parks system.
If nature were more accessible through near-urban parks, it would have been a game changer for environmental conservation, climate change mitigation, and our communities’ health.
There’s a chapter of the book dedicated to the controversy over private land ownership that boiled over in the 1950s, where park planners debated how to acquire remaining private lands in the park. The status quo of mixed ownership that continues to this day was entrenched when the predecessor to the NCC, the Federal District Commission, acceded to the concern of Kingsmere and Meech Lake residents as opposed to those planners who wanted the park to be administered along the lines of a national park, that is, as a public park.
Had this controversy gone the other way, this book would been much shorter and far less interesting to research! In the constellation of protected areas in Canada, Gatineau Park provides a deviant and extreme case: poorly defined boundaries, little to no parliamentary oversight, checkerboard of land ownership, capitulation to private interests. Hopefully the work that CPAWS OV is doing will help Gatineau Park shed its status as a textbook case for what not to do.
You can find Michael Lait’s book online: Governance of Near-Urban Conservation Areas: Lessons from the conflicts surrounding Gatineau Park near Ottawa, Canada.