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Ontario Parks

The protectors of Ontario’s wild side

By Rajitha Sivakumaran

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Occupying more than 10 per cent of the world’s second largest country, Ontario truly is yours to discover with its sprawling urban centres and charming farming communities. But discovery can become a completely transformed experience if exploration enthusiasts were to step outside metropolitan boundaries and into the natural world. Ontario is home to over 330 provincial parks, filled with everything from picturesque boreal forests and freshwater lakes to plants and wildlife like moose and wolves … and even a few pesky invasive species to keep things interesting.

Although nature needs little maintenance, these conserved lands sometimes need a helping hand from human protectors. That’s where Ontario Parks enters the picture. This organization, a branch of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, is responsible for the protection, management and operation of all provincial parks in Ontario. Ecosystem preservation, public education and recreation are the main objectives behind the conservation of over eight million hectares of land. These parks are scattered around the Ontarian landscape, ranging from the partly inaccessible Polar Bear Provincial Park tucked away up north to the popular Bronte Creek Provincial Park, situated on the outskirts of Toronto just a few minutes off the Queen Elizabeth Way highway.

We love parks!

Ontario Parks staff work tirelessly to promote natural heritage education. Brad Steinberg, the Natural Heritage Education and Learning Coordinator at Ontario Parks, is one such individual. Having worked for the organization for nearly two decades, Steinberg has occupied a vast array of positions from biologist, naturalist and ecologist to roles in communications and public affairs.

“It’s a great place to work,” Steinberg said. “My colleagues and I, we all love parks and we love working for parks.”

Presently, Steinberg is involved with coordinating educational and inspirational programs for the public. In addition to his explorations of the great outdoors, Steinberg actively communicates with field staff to ensure that they have the tools they need to be successful in their jobs.

“We have hundreds and hundreds of educational and recreational programs offered every summer throughout the parks,” Steinberg said.

Two of these programs, in particular, are deserving of noteworthy mention. The Learn to Camp program is catered towards novice campers, like new Canadians, and equips them with the knowledge needed to have a fun and safe experience in nature. Healthy Parks, Healthy People Day focuses on the health benefits of being outdoors in a natural setting. Day use fees are waived on this day and all people are invited to provincial parks to enjoy the health benefits of the great outdoors.

What’s in it for Ontario?

In addition to contributing to the mental and physical well-being of Ontarians, preserving habitats and wildlife influences the very future of the province. Climate change is predicted to have some drastic effects on Ontario’s natural resources — floods, droughts, increased prevalence of invasive insects and disease, frequent forest fires, and lower water quality to list a few.

“Having areas that are set aside to protect biodiversity — it’s a great way to build resilience in Ontario in the wake of climate change,” Steinberg said.

Continual preservation of these lands provides Ontario with what Steinberg called “a biodiversity insurance” — this ensures that these unique aspects of Ontario are not lost with time. Landscape changes have altered many aspects of the earth’s natural ecosystems, and Ontario is no exception. From a philosophical perspective, Ontario’s parks serve as a reminder of what it once was like, telling a story that is both biological and historical.

On the pragmatic side of it, parks offer recreational and ecotourism opportunities and contribute to the economy. Provincial parks provide great opportunities for Ontarians to have outdoor recreational experiences. These low-impact experiences, like camping and canoeing, are ecologically sustainable, Steinberg said. Over 100 of Ontario’s parks house on-site facilities to support these activities. Not all parks are the same; some have specific features that draw in countless visitors. For example, many people go to Algonquin Provincial Park for the spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities present there.

Provincial parks contribute to our body of knowledge as well. Researchers from various fields carry out studies in parks, from biological studies of species’ habitats to archaeological excavations. Through a rigorous authorization process, research projects are screened by ecologists and park staff to ensure the environment is protected. In an archaeological dig, for instance, the researcher would conclude their project by returning any disturbed ground to its original condition in order to maintain the integrity of the area, Steinberg said.

Let’s go green

Ontario Parks is a friend not just to environmentalists — its green initiatives and practices make it a leader in promoting a healthy planet. Having reduced its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 15 per cent since 2006, the organization follows the Go for Green Strategy. Green buildings and the latest green technology are used to save energy and promote ecological prosperity.

Visitors to the parks are encouraged to help Ontario Parks’ GHG reduction initiatives too. The Park Once program reduces GHG and vehicle traffic by requesting visitors park their cars upon entering the park and using alternative forms of transportation, such as cycling, to navigate across the landscape.

A most natural challenge

Provincial parks welcome eight to 10 million visitors each year, weather permitting — a figure that has remained steady, Steinberg said. Weather, an unavoidable natural phenomenon, is the biggest influencer of how many people visit parks over the year.

Another test of nature comes in the form of forest fires, but there is an entire branch of the Ministry that works with Ontario Parks to manage wildfires to protect people, property and natural resources. As frightening as they may seem, “fire is a natural part of many of the ecosystems in Ontario … they play an important ecological,” Steinberg said. Unlike Canada’s western provinces, Ontario has had cooler and wetter summers for the last two years, and this has led to a lower number of wildfires.

Fires can play another beneficial role too; prescribed fires are used to manage invasive plant species, which can degrade the health of ecosystems.

“In Ontario Parks, they’re a concern because some of these invasive species can really impact the ecosystems and values that the parks are set up to protect,” Steinberg said.

Additionally, the province suffers from economic loss due to invasive species. Invasive fish species can impact both commercial and recreational fisheries by competing with native fish species for food and habitat, driving down populations. In the Great Lakes area, zebra mussels pose a particular problem — they impact intake pipes for businesses and hinder recreational activities. Forest productivity can also be altered by invasive plant species, and invasive insects that kill trees (like the Emerald Ash Borer beetle) can cost cities and towns millions of dollars to remove dead and hazardous trees. The story here does not have a good ending without human intervention. A newly proclaimed law called the Invasive Species Act will help Ontario’s communities fight and adapt to the threat of these species.

As protectors of natural and cultural resources, complex ecosystems, and nature’s outdoor playground, the staff at Ontario Parks is passionately committed to their vocation of preserving Ontario’s wild side.

For more information about Ontario Parks, visit www.ontarioparks.com/en.