photo by Leo Moser
Beginning with Yellowstone in 1872, national parks in the U.S. and around the world have conserved unique and spectacular natural wonders for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations. Today, scores of millions visit national parks and other government preserves every year.
But in the far northern reaches of North America, a new system of parks has been established that hardly anyone will ever see – by design.
The Canadian province of Alberta has designated four new parks that, together with existing protected areas, represent 6.7 million hectares (around 16.6 million acres) of protected land overall. That’s an area about the size of the entire province of New Brunswick, or twice the size of Belgium. It represents the largest-ever addition to the Alberta Parks system and, collectively, the world’s largest contiguous area of protected boreal forest. The provincial government, in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, will administer the parks, but it has announced plans to partner with local indigenous communities to maintain and oversee them.
The boreal forest stretches across the northern landmasses around the globe. It covers the mountains and swaddles the fjords of Norway, spans Siberia – where it is known by the Russian word “taiga,” distinguishing it from the mostly treeless tundra to the north – jumps the Bering Sea and spans much of subarctic Alaska and Canada from British Columbia to Labrador. Especially at high elevations, it extends much farther south, into the Alps, the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies and parts of New England and the Appalachians. That is where most of us get to see a few glimpses of it.
But these southern extensions are mostly patchwork islands where just a few isolated species of plants, insects and mostly small animals live at latitudes far below their usual haunts. Big creatures like caribou, wood buffalo, brown bears, wolves, lynx, fishers and moose generally need big spaces. What they don’t need is people, particularly crowds of people.
The newly created and expanded parks of northern Alberta, extending into the Northwest Territories with the adjacent Wood Buffalo National Park, will never draw those crowds. The local population is tiny, even when you consider “local” to be anyone living within several hundred miles. Getting there will require far too much effort for more than a handful of visitors every year. If a tree falls in this particular forest, it is virtually certain that nobody will ever hear it.
The early conservationists who created the first generation of parks probably would not understand why anyone would create a park that nobody can visit. The fact that we do so today shows how our sensibilities about preservation have changed. This is preservation not for future human enjoyment, but for its own sake.
Canada is taking a pragmatic approach. The country is hardly opposed to development, even in the far north, where everything from heavy oil to diamonds to uranium is routinely extracted. But the north is so big and so sparsely settled that the cost of preservation is low compared to its environmental benefits. Nobody is developing this particular land anyway, at least not any time soon, so why not preserve it – particularly if doing so creates environmental credits, either legal or moral, to offset development elsewhere?
These conditions are not the same these days in the Lower 48. When President Trump sought to reduce the amount of land set aside in Bears Ears National Monument, he was simply arriving at a different cost-benefit calculation than was made by his predecessor, who established it just before leaving office. Strict conservation rules will always be more controversial when they carry a higher economic or recreational opportunity cost.
So kudos to Alberta for creating this biggest-of-its-kind forest preserve. It is a worthy achievement, even if almost nobody on two legs ever gets to see it.