• Banff from Tunnel Mountain, Banff National Park, AB, 1929. (Photo: William Oliver)

Last year marked the 125th anniversary of Banff, Canada’s first national park, and 2011 happens to be the centennial of Canada’s National Park service. These anniversaries have occasioned some celebrations, including a new book showcasing Canada’s national parks in all their majesty. However, we ought not to forget to take a critical look at parks too.

To start, we might ask ourselves why these anniversaries are taking place now: why was 2010 the 125th anniversary of our first national park and not, say the 225th anniversary? Why is it the 100th anniversary of the national parks service and not the 200th? These questions may seem silly, but the answers to them probably are not what you would expect. Contrary to popular belief, the reason parks to preserve wilderness started to be established in Canada (and elsewhere) toward the end of the 19th century was not because humans suddenly wised up to the importance of preserving nature or some new found romanticism.

Human perspectives toward wilderness and nature have been as varied throughout recorded history as they are today. At any period, there have been those who have looked to nature and wildlife with awe and reverence, and sought to leave sites of natural beauty untouched. Take for example some of Western Civilization’s oldest literature, the Homeric hymns of Ancient Greece:

“firs or towering oaks grow upon the fruitful earth
beautiful, flourishing on the lofty mountains.
They stand high, and people call them
sacred groves of the immortals,
and mortals do not cut them down at all with an axe.”

On the other hand, there have always been those who seem immune to nature’s charms, and display no interest in preserving wild landscapes. Keeping our 2,700-year-old poem in mind, our urge to preserve nature is as old as civilization. But this brings us back to our question: if the desire to preserve wilderness and nature is an ancient one, why is Canada’s first national park barely more than a century old? (And just to clear things up, it’s not because of the timing of Confederation, since we inherited many institutions from colonial authorities, such as universities that predate 1867.)

Rather, the short answer is that it was only at that time that the wilderness started to rapidly disappear. For tens of thousands of years, human beings were spread quite sparsely over the earth, never numbering much more than a few hundred million. That all changed with the Industrial Revolution. The human population suddenly started to multiply at an unprecedented rate, hitting one billion by the start of the nineteenth century. Though it took over 100,000 years for humans to reach our first billion, it required only another hundred years for the human population to double to two billion. By that point in the late nineteenth century, the phenomenal growth by humans had devoured a lot of what had been wild land and pushed other species to extinction.

The first parks were established out of the knowledge that if steps were not taken soon, just about everywhere on earth would be exploited by a fast-growing human population. Indeed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the literary mind behind Sherlock Holmes, after visiting Banff National Park, noted this logic. “When Canada has filled up and carried a large population,” wrote Doyle, “she will bless the foresight of the administrators who took possession of broad tracts of the most picturesque land and put them for ever out of the power of the speculative dealer.” The reasoning is simple: more humans, less wilderness. Thus, ironically, as wilderness itself becomes scarcer, parks become more common.

Seen in this light, the sudden acceleration in the creation of parks in Canada and elsewhere over the last several decades is as much a cause for alarm as celebration. Sure, we are nominally “preserving” more land than ever before, but we’re using more land than ever before! And in order to address that problem we are going to have to look at root causes. As the American-based Centre for Biological Diversity puts it succinctly, “the root cause of all environmental problems is human overpopulation.” Amen. Now let’s hope the 21st century has a better solution to that problem than the 20th, as creating more parks alone isn’t going to work.