Algonquin Park – can it continue to be everything to everyone?

Paradise in Ruins – Part 2

Submitted by Christopher Huggett, retired Conservation Biologist.


Only those with memory of Algonquin’s distant past can be rightly appalled with what they see today. Complaints arising from inadequate law enforcement within Algonquin Park reflect a generational shift in both demographics and social expectations. The vast majority of recreational damage to campsites, natural resources, and inter-party conflicts arise in the interior where Park Wardens are virtually non-existent. Park managers focus finite personnel to the “intensive use” Highway 60 corridor leaving the interior open for abuse. Above: The experience this youth group had in 1990 is radically different than campers have today. Photo submitted.

Interior Park staff are seasonal maintenance Rangers without enforcement capability who remove hazard trees and clean privy boxes. The millennial generation, their umbilical cord still firmly attached to their laptops and decoupled at birth from the natural world, make up an urban majority devoid of backcountry etiquette and engage in the majority of misdemeanours. Conversely, to avoid the permit fees and gain unauthorized motorized access, the surrounding rural population take to ATVs and pickups along the Park’s periphery carrying chainsaws, lawn chairs and an array of decrepit household items which invariably are abandoned at their campsites.

Twice in the past decade I encountered the same middle-aged men unloading Sea-Doos from the Whitney boat launch into Galeairy Lake. The boat launch is within two km of Algonquin Park boundaries. Before I embarked with my canoe (and while waving my cell-phone in their direction) I warned them that should they cross into Park waters there would be repercussions. (Obviously, I must not have appeared very intimidating because they entered Park waters anyway.) The elderly Park Warden that eventually responded to my complaint conceded that Park management only assigns one interior Park Warden for all of Algonquin Park.

The traditional old guard is being replaced with the new

Government institutions such as Ontario Parks can be commended on progressive human right policies such as the Ontario Public Service Inclusion & Diversity Blueprint. It reflects rapid changes in Canada’s demographics. Legally a percentage of employment positions must consist of minority, disadvantaged, and women in “non-traditional” roles. It’s a first step in the right direction. It’s a stellar initiative and well overdue.

However, it has its drawbacks. Women adopting a law enforcement role can be more vulnerable to dismissal and verbal abuse rendering them more uncomfortable than their male counterparts when approaching an unruly intoxicated crowd on a remote campsite. Their request for back-up is often denied because staff constraints and hiring costs make this option fiscally unfeasible. Thus, in many instances the public disturbance or resource damage continues unabated.

Ontario Parks discussed the option of having enforcement staff carry sidearms when their national counterparts in Parks Canada debated the issue in 2009. After much discussion Ontario dropped the proposed policy which was initially raised by Occupational Health and Safety. The services of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) are summoned in only the most severe front country incidents; it’s not available in the interior. Reasoning, discretion, education, and de-escalation, the hallmarks of effective conflict resolution are applied. But for the millions of visitors the Park endures each summer statistically bad apples emerge and these tactics are frequently not sufficient.

A stiff boot is sometimes required.

A generation ago campers could extend their horizons by climbing the old Algonquin fire towers. Liability concerns and an overprotective society have removed this possibility today. Photo submitted.
Above: Wheelchair bound enjoy Canoe tripping into Algonquin Park interior. Photo submitted.

Escaping to supposedly greener pastures in Temagami 100km north of North Bay may not be the panacea to experience less crowding. Lake Temagami attracts more southern Ontario youth camps than Algonquin because the former destination forfeits a user permit fee and has no limit on campers per campsite. Moreover, since the late 1980s commercial and private houseboat operators have swamped Lake Temagami and surrounding waters inflecting a decades old conflict among cottagers, resident youth camps and traditional canoe trippers. (ref. Ottertooth, Temagami 2001 campsite survey)

The cost of the average Algonquin cottage lease in 2016 was $3,000 depending on its location, road access and amenities. Since then the cost has increased as exclusive demand makes even the most dilapidated mouse- infested shack a coveted palace. A public review by MNRF consultants received over 300 written submissions both for and against cottage removal. At the time one MNRF consultant demonstrated little flexibility to my concerns over mitigating noise vibrations associated with cottage use, such as generators. Surprisingly, he found the idea a novel preoccupation on my part to protect the natural “sound- scape” from unwanted noise.

Above: Upper Pine River. This Nature Reserve in the upper Pine River is protected in Algonquin Park but once it drains outside the park toward the Bonnechere it is subject to logging. Photo submitted.

The Algonquin Forestry Authority along with the Ottawa Valley Forest Inc. inflicts the vast majority of industrial exploitation in, and surrounding the Park. There is little or no coordination to safeguard watersheds such as the spectacular Pine River accessed off Gunns Road which flows both inside and outside the Park. It is designated a Nature Reserve inside the Park. But once it drains across the Park boundaries southward toward the Bonnechere River near Turners Camp, logging is permitted and is scheduled to start this year.

Nevertheless, Algonquin Park achieved its reputation as an international timber basket when early surveyors to Canada concluded the Park’s rocky landscape was unsuitable for settlement and agriculture. Historical reality is that recreational use evolved secondary to logging. Despite hundreds of lumberjacks hurling axes and liquidating the pines each winter to be wasted overseas in Europe for naval masts, and squared for factory foundations, the wounded landscape healed … but as a much poorer rendition than before. Now with modern machinery and the insatiable wood demand needed to provide housing for Canada’s exploding population (not to mention overseas markets), little will survive. Forest company managers argue that cutting must transpire, even when profits don’t exist to put marginal forest “into a managed state”. With that argument is the mantra instilled in every university forestry faculty across the country; fire suppression over the past century necessitates logging to replicate natural disasters, and that wilderness and uncut forests no longer exists in the Ottawa Valley. Thus contemporary clearcutting is justified as nothing remains untouched anyway by the footprint of humanity. Modern mammoth logging machinery defiantly fulfils that prophecy with only public outcry as its possible saviour.

Above: Chainsaws have been replaced by logging machinery that forever remodels the landscape’s architecture. Grapple skidders and tree harvesters are not discriminatory and turn forest into a battlefield. Photo submitted.

In short, logging in the Ottawa Valley and Algonquin Park is a historical reality to which “misgivings” not “pride” should be attached. Forestry companies must be independently held accountable by independent third party auditing and genuinely incorporate the public’s concerns into planning. Battlefield machinery must be scaled down and eliminated. Green washing and glorification of the forest industry by the Park’s interpretation staff must stop. Finally, while nothing short of a tourism boycott could turn the tides for the recreational exploitation occurring inside Algonquin Park, its Superintendent John Swick should be made acutely aware every time a visiting member of the public leaves the Park unsatisfied. How important to the ethos of our humanity is Algonquin Park?

“We are tired, nerve shaken, over-civilized people, finding that going to the mountains is going home, that wildness is a necessity and that parks are fountains of life.”Naturalist John Muir

One comment

  1. Hugh Bacon

    Chris, my wife and I now in our mid- 80s have many miles of wilderness canoe tripping under the keel of our 15 foot Springbok. Much of our tripping was done in the 70s and 80s. Much of it was in Algonquin but we did a couple of trips in Quetico and one out of Lac la Ronge and via a chain of lakes into the Churchill River. We paddled upstream beyond Stanley Mission and via another chain back into La Ronge. Even in those days there was always evidence of those firm believers in the “garbage fairy”. I was saddened to read your account of what is increasing disrepect for our wilderness. I fear there is no real solution as society in general seems to be shying away from inculcating certain values and skills into our youngies. Scouts and guides do a lot but so called personal watercraft, 4 wheelers and dirt bikes seem to be the greater focus.

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