Submitted by Christopher Huggett, retired Conservation Biologist. All photos supplied by the author.
Introduced to Algonquin Park in the 1980s by mentor and friend, Ornithologist Monty Brigham, I have witnessed dramatic technological, demographic, and infrastructure changes to accommodate the interests of tourism, forestry and cottagers.
As a sound technician in my 20s I lugged 35 lbs of recording equipment and a 58 lb prospector to track territorial song birds while enduring rain, bugs and leeches. My colleague Monty identified the species, set sound levels and dealt with the frustration of temperamental reel to reel sound equipment. The recordings were compiled to complement Dr. Earl Godfrey’s book Birds of Canada. They were also traded with sound tracks from Cornell’s Ornithology Lab. Recordings were sold at Algonquin Park’s visitor centre in the mid-1990s. Hopefully they have inspired and educated subsequent generations of naturalists.
In the early 1980s interior camping permits ran a couple of dollars a night. We encountered few other spring paddlers. The lakes were mostly quiet outside of July and August. Motorboats were isolated to sport fishermen and water taxis who kept to a respectable distance from campsites. The term “rowdyism” had yet to be invented to describe the growing number of deprecated social gatherings, which now dominate the holiday season. The noise of chainsaws and skidders from logging operations seldom interrupted the silence outside of winter.
Forty-three years later in 2023 recording birds and other wildlife in the Park is almost impossible.
Solitude and silence have become as scarce as the declining morning chorus of song birds. What has triggered this situation in Ontario’s oldest provincial park?
Money speaks but not from the tongue of birds
Revenue generation became Ontario Parks’ new mantra when the Ontario government implemented the concept of cost recovery. The provincial government decided that Ontario Parks must eventually become self-sufficient by at least covering 80 to 85 percent of their own operating budgets. The popularity of Algonquin Park attracts more revenue than any of its provincial counterparts. This economic surplus is then redistributed to compensate for shortfalls in less popular parks. Consequently, all sectors of Algonquin Park have became targeted for intense commercial exploitation. Algonquin Park is currently under siege from both ends: industrial tourism and resource extraction.
According to local press, tourism revenue from Algonquin Park has soared in surrounding townships to over $60 million annually. In 2014 campground rentals alone produced $23.7 million. At the other end of the spectrum the wood volume extracted from the park in 2015 soared to 2.5 times its annual average.
New forestry machinery efficient at extracting timber – but creates irreversible damage to forest
Ironically, a few employees involved in the Ottawa Valley forest industry — the loggers and mill workers themselves — have approached me with serious reservations on the sustainability and ethics of cutting and hauling remnant giant white pine out of the park. While mill jobs have slightly declined because of automation, the number of workers in the forest has plummeted with the advent of expensive heavy equipment such as tree harvesters and grapple skidders. To pay off heavy equipment loans and justify the half a million dollars invested into some of these machines, forestry managers argue that logging must continue twelve months a year. Unlike one person handling a chainsaw, huge machinery is indiscriminate and is being applied in impact sensitive and unsuitable landscapes. These include thin unstable soils, rocky outcrops and poorly drained areas. While local mills along Hwy.60 between Whitney and Golden Lake still carry the names of their pioneer founders, 49 percent of shareholders at the Madawaska mill, for example, are of Chinese origin. The best wood goes to Asian markets. Without the provincial subsidies used to automate mill machinery and reduce workers and their salaries, wood production would become unprofitable. Algonquin Park remains the only Ontario Park where logging is permitted. All attempts to phase out or reduce the wood volume leaving the Park have failed. A fall-down effect with a subsequent closure of mills (already experienced in western Quebec) is inevitable within the next 20 years.
The evolution of outdoor recreation now includes the Algonquin “ theme” park
Algonquin Park over the past half century has been transformed into a wilderness theme park designed to attract the high income earners from Canada’s wealthiest regions. Eighty-five percent of visitors are from Ottawa and Toronto. Both its logging and recreational history are commercialized through virtual exhibits, films and bus tours. Simultaneously, park planners have built more interior campsites on popular canoe routes by infilling shorelines. Solitude has been reduced to a set of ear plugs to avoid hearing your neighbours. The ubiquitous youth group which commonly appears just before dark can be equally unsettling to a good night’s sleep. Not only have interior campsites become more numerous and crowded — their occupation increasingly includes the shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall. Deferring a trip until November to avoid the crowds doesn’t guarantee solitude and could leave you battling high winds and suffering from hypothermia instead.
Expanding the tourism market to attract more revenue
To reach a wider tourism market, park managers have expanded the outdoor recreational spectrum by diversifying outdoor experiences. Backpacking, skiing, horseback riding and dog sledding were introduced in the 1990s and early 2000s. Efforts to attract a more sedentary market have been achieved by elevating the Park’s comfort zone with roofed accommodation such as renovated Ranger cabins, yurts, and the supply of free hot showers at parking lots.
View from former fire-tower on Big Crow Lake in 1990. The tower was removed and a luxury cabin is now leased for the wealthy.
Along Hwy.60 the price of crowded but ever popular drive-in campsites continues to skyrocket with rental fees comparable to a five-star hotel, thus restricting camping in the Hwy.60 corridor to the financially privileged.
Rowdyism has become embedded in Algonquin’s backcountry culture
“Canned wilderness” now dominates the outdoor experience and has turned into frivolous entertainment. Visitors to the interior most frequently leave with a “been there / done that” attitude. Next summer they will try a completely different vacation — a visit to Niagara Falls, Disney World or an ATV Adventure Tour. Their experience in the Park frequently leaves no tangible shift in values or improvement toward the natural world.
The age-old argument that the crowds can be avoided by taking a few long portages into interior lakes like Burnt Island is false. Many contemporary canoeists seek the interior as a venue to let loose and shed the behavioural constraints imposed by modern society. These groups do not make good neighbours.
Increasingly, the new “consumer camper” has been satiated on a diet of reality TV survival programming. They travel in large social groups and leave campsites hacked and barren of trees. Shade trees have died from root compaction or wounds from axes and machetes. Radios are smuggled onto campsites to the annoyance of traditional canoeists, as are airborne drones. The OPP Marine Unit patrols the waters of Lake Opeongo on long weekends but after they haul their boat out, the parties recommence.
MNRF declined to phase out or place constraints on privileged cottagers
Finally, the Ontario Government had the opportunity to terminate or phase out the 300 plus cottage leases inside the Park by 2016. Cottage life includes increased motorized activity such as commuting by outboard, water skiing or towing children in inflated tire tubes. Generators, lawnmowers, chainsaws and other noise machines ubiquitous to cottage living pollute the sound waves inside the Park. Rather than terminate, phase out or place restrictions on renewed leases, the province extended rental agreements with only one binding caveat — “cost recovery.” With each rental contract amounting to approximately $3,000 annually, administrators were reluctant to forfeit this amount of revenue by terminating leases.
Looking to the future
Restoration of Algonquin’s landscape requires a phenomenal shift in local and provincial political will. It involves an understanding that business as usual by serial cutting every 20 years with heavy equipment is non-sustainable. It requires public awareness that Algonquin Park is more than a social venue to party and get high. Cottagers need to surrender their vacation sites to the Crown for the betterment of wilderness values. Finally, the Ontario Government must stop managing Algonquin Park as a commercial commodity for unsustainable timber exploitation and industrial tourism. Rather it should simplify its over-developed infrastructure and begin re-naturalizing the landscape applying the overriding principle of ecological integrity.
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