COVID-19 park clo­sures a boon to con­ser­va­tion

Re­stric­tions could spark a plan­e­tary health rev­o­lu­tion, say James Stinson and El­iz­a­beth Lun­strum.

Calgary Herald - - OPINION -

In the early days of the COVID-19 lock­downs, so­cial me­dia was flooded with re­ports of an­i­mals re­claim­ing aban­doned en­vi­ron­ments. Ac­cord­ing to one widely shared post, dol­phins had re­turned to the canals of Venice.

While many of those sto­ries have since been de­bunked, con­ser­va­tion­ists are pro­vid­ing le­git­i­mate re­ports of cleaner air and wa­ter, and wildlife re­claim­ing con­tested habi­tats.

With wide­spread clo­sures of parks and con­ser­va­tion ar­eas around the world, could this be an op­por­tu­nity to trans­form the way we man­age and use these pro­tected en­vi­ron­ments?

In Canada, wildlife sight­ings are on the rise. Cole Bur­ton, a con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, says the pan­demic has pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity to study how an­i­mals re­spond to less hu­man recreation. Cam­era traps set in Golden Ears Pro­vin­cial Park in Bri­tish Columbia have cap­tured amaz­ing footage of wildlife, in­clud­ing cougars and bears, and rangers note some an­i­mals are be­com­ing more ac­tive dur­ing the day.

In Yosemite Na­tional Park in Cal­i­for­nia, where 400 bears have been hit by cars since 1995, staff have noted re­duced noise and air pol­lu­tion, and a surge of megafauna into the park’s fields and open spa­ces. Asked in a Face­book Live event how an­i­mals have re­sponded to the park’s clo­sure, ranger Katie Pa­trick said, “For the most part, I think they’re hav­ing a party.”

In Sri Lanka, park clo­sures have cre­ated greater free­dom for an­i­mals stressed by over-vis­i­ta­tion and un­reg­u­lated feed­ing. Ex­perts there have urged au­thor­i­ties to use the clo­sures to en­act a shift in the coun­try’s wildlife tourism sec­tor. Sug­ges­tions in­clude re­strict­ing high-end tourism to se­lect parks, di­vert­ing vis­i­tors to less-vis­ited ar­eas, and lim­it­ing ve­hi­cle ac­cess.

Aware­ness of the health ben­e­fits of parks and nat­u­ral ar­eas has grown over the past 20 years. In the early 2000s, vis­i­ta­tion rates to parks and con­ser­va­tion ar­eas de­clined in­ter­na­tion­ally, lead­ing to con­cerns of “na­ture deficit dis­or­der,” a term coined by Richard Louv. Louv blames “na­ture deficit dis­or­der” on the sep­a­ra­tion of peo­ple from the nat­u­ral world, and ar­gues it re­sults in de­creased emo­tional and phys­i­cal well-be­ing, in­clud­ing obe­sity, stress and dulled senses.

The con­cept of na­ture deficit dis­or­der has been widely adopted by park man­agers as it helped to re­po­si­tion parks as im­por­tant sites of health pro­mo­tion. Parks Vic­to­ria, in Aus­tralia, for ex­am­ple, launched the “Healthy Parks Healthy Peo­ple” cam­paign in 2000 to en­cour­age the con­nec­tions be­tween a healthy en­vi­ron­ment and healthy so­ci­ety. It has since be­come a dom­i­nant paradigm in park man­age­ment around the world.

In 2006, the Cana­dian

Parks Coun­cil pro­duced its strat­egy “Healthy by Na­ture” and has pro­moted in­creased vis­i­ta­tion as a means of “con­nect­ing Cana­di­ans with na­ture.” This ap­proach is based on the idea that hu­man health de­pends on ac­cess to healthy parks, and that healthy parks are de­pen­dent on sup­port gen­er­ated through vis­i­ta­tion.

In North Amer­ica, the num­ber of vis­i­tors to na­tional parks has been on the rise. In the U.S., the na­tional parks sys­tem saw 331 mil­lion vis­its in 2016, an 18-per-cent rise over 2011. Canada ex­pe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar five-year up­swing, ris­ing 15 per cent to 15.5-mil­lion vis­its in 2016.

But crit­ics have ar­gued that Parks Canada’s re­newed fo­cus on boost­ing at­ten­dance has come at the ex­pense of eco­log­i­cal in­tegrity. From 2005 to 2015, spend­ing on con­ser­va­tion dropped to $99 mil­lion from $161 mil­lion, just 13 per cent of Parks Canada’s bud­get. At the same time, fund­ing for “vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence” in­creased to $204 mil­lion from $163 mil­lion.

A re­cent eval­u­a­tion of Cana­dian parks showed a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in rule vi­o­la­tions, with a strong cor­re­la­tion to the num­ber of vis­i­tors at a site. More­over, a 2016 State of the Parks Re­port found that 46 per cent of na­tional park ecosys­tems in Canada were in just fair or poor con­di­tion. While this was a slight im­prove­ment from 2011, in­di­ca­tors in the mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram were cut by 28 per cent, rais­ing ques­tions about the sci­en­tific rigour of the re­port­ing sys­tem.

When COVID-19 lock­downs were in­sti­tuted, com­men­ta­tors en­cour­aged peo­ple to seek out the health ben­e­fits of parks and nat­u­ral ar­eas. As parks saw a surge in vis­i­tors, these spa­ces were trans­formed from sites of health pro­mo­tion to pub­lic health threats, lead­ing to wide­spread clo­sures across North Amer­ica.

A 2015 re­port by The Lancet Com­mis­sion on Plan­e­tary Health found that re­cent gains in pub­lic health (ris­ing life ex­pectancy, lower death rates in chil­dren un­der five) have come with bio­di­ver­sity loss and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. In re­sponse, the com­mis­sion ad­vanced the con­cept of “plan­e­tary health” to di­rect at­ten­tion to the com­plex con­nec­tions be­tween the “health of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion and the state of the nat­u­ral sys­tems on which it de­pends.”

While some have called on Parks Canada to re­turn to its man­date to pro­tect eco­log­i­cal in­tegrity, we need to move be­yond stale de­bates about use ver­sus preser­va­tion. Cur­rent clo­sures pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for a rad­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion in con­ser­va­tion and park man­age­ment.

The adop­tion of a plan­e­tary health frame­work that aims to bal­ance hu­man and eco­log­i­cal well-be­ing, builds on emerg­ing part­ner­ships with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and fos­ters in­no­va­tive ap­proaches to In­dige­nous-led con­ser­va­tion, would be a mean­ing­ful step in this di­rec­tion.

James Stinson is a post-doc­toral fel­low at the Dah­daleh In­sti­tute of Global Health Re­search and fac­ulty of ed­u­ca­tion at York Univer­sity. El­iz­a­beth (Libby) Lun­strum is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the School of Pub­lic Ser­vice at Boise State Univer­sity. This col­umn is re­pub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion web­site un­der Cre­ative Com­mons li­cence.

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