Canada’s national parks, particularly the mountain parks, are losing their focus on ecological integrity by allowing “amusement park infrastructure” to draw in visitors, says the former vice chairwoman of a federal task force set up to protect the beloved areas.

And, it’s been further blurred by federal budget cuts to Parks Canada in the spring budget, the Calgary Herald reported.

“The reality is that national parks remain in peril,” said Pamela Wright, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia who was vice chairwoman of the original Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada’s National Parks in 2000.

At the time, the 11-person task force concluded that virtually all national parks suffered from overuse, pollution, invasion of exotic species and outside developments. It also raised concerns that carnivores such as grizzly bears in Banff National Park were under serious threat.

Wright, among a group of experts speaking Thursday (Oct. 11) at an environmental conference at Mount Royal University, said she was initially optimistic that the integrity of Canada’s parks was being addressed by the government through additional funding and the hiring of scientists to work at the agency.

But she and several others, including another member of the original panel and an environmentalist, said intensive development and budget cuts have blurred the lines in recent years.

Earlier this year, 638 Parks Canada employees — a third of them biologists, social scientists and archeologists — were told their jobs were either being eliminated or reduced in terms of hours by the cost-cutting measures.

It came on the heels of recent decisions by the federal agency to allow more infrastructure such as a glass-floored viewing platform over the Sunwapta Valley in Jasper and permit summer use applications at Mount Norquay ski hill in Banff.

Bill Fisher, Parks Canada’s vice president of operations for western and northern Canada, said it’s important the national parks remain relevant to all types of visitors.

“We are not advocating we move away from an ecological integrity focus, that’s not the point at all,” he said. “Rather we have to make sure … we provide opportunities for people to come and enjoy them.

“When you do that and you can have people connect with parks on a first-hand basis, it is so powerful. It will bring them back to those places and will help them have a better appreciation for nature.”

However, environmental groups said they’re concerned infrastructure such as a proposed via ferrata at Mount Norquay will hurt critical grizzly bear habitat — on top of risks such as highway and railway deaths.

“Every habitat is critical to their future,” said Alison Woodley, national conservation director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association. “It’s a big worry.”

Fisher said Parks Canada is committed to ensuring protection by requiring environmental assessments for developments and working with organizations such as Canadian Pacific to reduce wildlife mortality.

“We know we’re not there yet, we’re not there yet on many of these restoration activities,” he said. “We lost two young grizzlies this last weekend, so we know how much more work there is to do, but we’re committed to doing it.”