A Park Apart

Sable Island will soon become our forty-third national park, and the challenge for Parks Canada is how to reconcile the competing interests of wilderness protection and ecotourism. Can a national park really manage both?

Photograph courtesy of Roberto Dutesco/Wild Horses of Sable Island Gallery, New York
Courtesy of Roberto Dutesco/Wild Horses of Sable Island Gallery, New York

Three hundred kilometres southeast of Halifax, and 170 kilometres from the nearest landfall, at Canso, Nova Scotia, one of the most remote pieces of Canada stands out against the Atlantic like a thin white rune. Sable Island is the exposed tip of a massive sandbar perched on the edge of the Eastern Scotian Shelf, a spare, desertlike landscape in the middle of the sea. Its sands have shifted into an unlikely shape: a crescent some forty-two kilometres long, tapered at the extremities into curled, narrow spits, calling to mind a smile of uncertain temper. A system of tall dunes runs down the middle of the island like a spine, two parallel ridges with fields of grass and heath, and in between a smattering of ponds fed by the freshwater lens that underlies the island and sustains its life. The dunes are fuzzed with windswept marram grass, its deep, fibrous roots holding them together as they are sculpted by the powerful marine elements: gales, waves, and the duelling currents of the warm Gulf Stream running eastward off the island’s southern shore, and the cold, westward-flowing Labrador Current to the north. The mixing of temperatures can cause fog as thick as chowder, which is partly why Sable is infamous for shipwrecks, some 350 of which lie buried in the shoals and sprawling sandbars that surround its coast. It’s also famous for the shaggy wild horses that live among the dunes—one of the world’s last free-roaming herds and, on days when the sun is shining, an almost irresistible symbol of innocence and freedom. In a country known for finding its history comparatively bland, Sable Island is an anomaly: a place that seems, with all its improbable beauty and folklore, to exist half in the realm of myth.

As such, it has a powerful allure for anyone with a passion for adventure travel. Yet even by Canadian standards, it isn’t easy to get to. Only one commercial charter flies there, and only when conditions are good enough that the plane, a twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander operated out of Halifax by Maritime Air, can be sure of making it there and back by day’s end. It’s also not for the thrifty. The charter alone costs about $5,500, and on top of that there are ground support fees to finance the preparation of the island’s “runway,” a makeshift landing strip on the beach marked out by tire tracks, which is often underwater or covered by a colony of sunbathing grey seals. Maritime Air isn’t licensed to sell individual seats, so you have to charter the whole plane; cost sharing is possible but difficult to coordinate. Those who manage to arrange a shared flight still risk paying for a trip to Halifax, only to discover on the morning of the scheduled charter that the weather isn’t co-operating; they’ll go home disappointed. The lucky few who make it will have spent at minimum a couple of thousand dollars for just a few hours on the island—not much time to try to understand the weird science and melancholy beauty of a place that is, on the surface, little more than an isolated strip of heaped sediment and buried debris. On top of that, the fragility of the local ecosystem raises ethical questions about whether tourists should be allowed there at all, making a trip to Sable Island an exercise in scrutinizing one’s beliefs about responsible travel and what it means to care for the natural environment.

This is not the kind of excursion most people have in mind when contemplating a day at the park. Yet that’s soon what it will be: on October 17, 2011, following lengthy negotiations by federal and provincial governments and various interest groups, Sable Island was designated as Canada’s newest national park reserve, the final step before officially making it the country’s forty-third national park.

What does it mean to call a place a park? A park is the playground we go to when we’re young, to play on the swing set and dig in the sandbox. A park is a large urban green space, like High Park in Toronto or Stanley Park in Vancouver, a multi-use public area where city dwellers can spend time outdoors. A ballpark is a place to play; so is a skate park, but in a different way. A national park is vast, monumental nature in all of its potency—but what is it for, exactly?

This question lies at the heart of the story of Canada’s national parks system. Parks Canada is the federal agency that oversees the country’s forty-two national parks, as well as 167 national historic sites and four national marine conservation areas. It was founded in 1911 as the Dominion Parks Branch, the first federally managed national parks service in the world. Its first commissioner, J. B. Harkin, sometimes called “the father of Canada’s national parks,” embodies the struggle to define what a national park should be. He is often discussed in connection with the so-called dual mandate of Parks Canada, which ostensibly aims to balance—or combine—conservation with recreation.

Harkin was engaged with parks as a nation builder, which required him to think as both a philosopher and a businessman. His annual report of 1912 included a statement that would reverberate through the agency’s history: “Of equal importance with construction and development work in the parks is the work of conservation.” He saw parks as opportunities to generate tourism, and his ideas have been criticized for paving the way for resort-style parks such as Banff, or Jasper, where just this year a new controversy erupted over the construction of a privately funded tourist walkway over the Columbia Icefield. But years before environmentalism had a cultural shape, his statement tied it forever to the official raison d’être of Canada’s national parks. His conundrum, how to balance protection with public access, remains very much at play in current thinking about park creation and management. Our collective, conscious desire to protect nature is stronger now than at any other time in history, but so is our ability to destroy it, and the struggle to balance protection and control in our relationship with nature is a big part of why these parks exist at all.

Canada’s newest national parks tend to be either in the Far North, or in equally remote destinations like Sable Island, which makes them a hard sell to the majority of Canadians who live in cities near the American border and are more likely to support publicly funded projects closer to home. In the case of Sable Island, the problem is made more complex by a historical narrative that goes back further than the earliest incarnations of the country itself—a set of stories that connects the island to dozens of different cultures, giving it value as a heritage property, but complicating decisions about how to integrate it into the official narrative of Canada’s national parks.

The beginning of human history on Sable Island has been lost in time. Mi’kmaq have long explored the waters around Nova Scotia in seafaring canoes, but their contemporary descendants are unaware of any early connection to the island. There is speculation that the Vikings may have landed there, or the Basques, or John Cabot, but none of these claims has been substantiated to the point of widespread acceptance. Most accounts name the Portuguese explorer João Alvares Fagundes as the island’s discoverer and the first to claim ownership. He presumably found Sable on a voyage taken before March 1521, when King Manuel I issued a document granting him rights to parts of the New World, including “the island Santa Cruz, which lies at the foot of the bank,” assumed to be a reference to Sable Island.

The island’s early history, however, is filled with names from all of the colonial powers. L’Isle de Sablon. Isola del Arena. Its would-be masters variously tried to populate the island, farm it, use it as a strategic base, or claim it as a kind of midocean food depot. The first recorded shipwreck occurred in 1583, when the English explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert went looking for Sable and ran the flagship Delight aground on its sandbar. Fifteen years later, the island became home to one of the first continuous European settlements in what would later be Canada, when the Marquis de La Roche-Mesgouez, a French nobleman charged by Henry IV with bringing Catholicism to Natives in New France, sailed a group of convicts and soldiers to the island, which had been chosen as his first landing point and a good spot for a military outpost. Bad weather forced the marquis back to France, but the misfit colony he left behind endured from 1598 to 1603 before sliding into chaos.

Over time, an increasing number of wrecks won Sable Island its dark reputation as “the graveyard of the Atlantic,” and a selection of enduring ghost stories about the island became popular, increasing its folkloric reach. Among the most famous is the tale of the Pale Lady, the ghost of one Mrs. Copeland, who drowned in the wreck of the English ship Francis in 1799; she was said to wander the island in search of her missing wedding ring—and the finger that was stolen along with it. Although such fantasies made people wary of Sable Island, it was rarely uninhabited for long, and eventually the many nautical catastrophes forced Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Wentworth to pursue a permanent presence.

In 1801, Wentworth set up the Humane Establishment to rescue survivors of shipwrecks on the island’s shoals. The organization’s founding marks the beginning of reliable documentation, and serves as a good place to pinpoint the beginning of Sable Island’s modern history; as of today, a record of continuous human occupation runs unbroken, by even a single day, from October 11, 1801, beginning with the arrival of James Morris, the Humane Establishment’s first superintendent, who ran it with a staff of three, plus his wife and children. Its inception also marked a turning point; statistics could now record the number of lives saved, as well as those lost. Throughout the nineteenth century, under the guidance of successive superintendents whose reputations varied from gentleman to rogue, the group added more effective life-saving tools to its inventory: more staff, better shelters, metal lifeboats, lighthouses. By the 1890s, Superintendent Robert Jarvis Boutilier and his team were performing rescues using rocket-propelled “shot lines,” which allowed them to send a breeches buoy (a device that resembled an inner tube with shorts attached below) to reel in victims stranded on ships trapped in the island’s turbulent surf.

Significantly, the formation of the Humane Establishment also marks the moment at which Sable Island joined the historical narrative of Nova Scotia. If you visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, you’ll find most of the Sable Island exhibit dedicated to the group’s life-saving efforts, complete with a breeches buoy hung from a line on the ceiling. Before the Humane Establishment, Sable Island was just another prize in the great colonial power grab; the rescue operation gave the island its first prolonged bureaucratic identity, and tied it to the lives of the various Nova Scotians who contributed to it until its closure in 1958.

Halifax writer Bruce Armstrong calls Sable Island “a palimpsest written over by many nations,” a metaphor that captures both the island’s long human history and its resistance to easy definition. For instance, its most famous residents, the wild horses, are only wild because time has made them so. Although historians disagree on exactly who put them on the island (according to one story, it was Thomas Hancock, an American merchant and an uncle of Declaration of Independence signatory John Hancock), they were unquestionably brought there for human use. Although they now appear to us as symbols of unfettered nature, they constitute perhaps the most potent proof that humans have been a presence on Sable Island since we found out it existed. Even those who fear what a park-driven influx of visitors might do to the island concede that having people there is the only way to ensure its protection. The question surrounding its designation as a national park, then, is not should it be a place for people, but rather for which people, and for what reasons?

Like a trip to Sable Island, the process of designating it a national park wasn’t easy. It began in January 2010, when then environment minster Jim Prentice and Nova Scotia minister of natural resources John MacDonell announced a memorandum of understanding to pursue federal protected status for the island. A task force was charged with recommending the best course of action, and after reviewing its report the governments unveiled their decision the following May. “It’s really a question of the degree of protection,” said Prentice, “and the highest protection is offered by Canada’s National Parks Act.” By the time the two governments announced a final agreement, the players had changed, but the script remained the same. As Prentice’s successor Peter Kent said in the official press release, “Today’s historic agreement will ensure that this iconic and valued Canadian landscape fabled for its wild horses, shipwrecks and one of the largest dune systems in Eastern Canada, will be protected as a national park reserve for the benefit of Canadians for all time.”

But exactly how would Canadians benefit? Sable Island may be remote, but it has a clan of fervent admirers and would-be protectors, some of whom are concerned that the park designation amounts to a roundabout way of increasing tourism. They point out Prentice’s public statement that the island “would be an area that we would encourage visitors to come to and they would be well taken care of while they’re there.” Currently, fewer than 250 people a year are allowed to visit, having obtained permission from the coast guard, which administers the island on behalf of the federal government, pursuant to regulations in the Canada Shipping Act. Lately, however, tourism requests have been on the rise. Whether it’s increased exposure on the Internet, or the ripple effect from photographer Roberto Dutesco’s acclaimed New York exhibition featuring the Sable Island ponies, more people know about the island and want to see it for themselves. Cruise ships have started stopping nearby to drop off day-tripping vacationers on its beaches. “Designating it a park, perhaps, will accelerate the interest in Sable Island,” says Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre, a Nova Scotia environmental group that favours the park designation. “But it was already happening. I don’t think the status quo was an option.”

Parker Donham, a Cape Breton journalist and blogger who has created a Facebook page called Hands Off Sable Island, isn’t convinced a national park is the best option either. “In many respects, a national park is a different thing than what we want for Sable,” he says. “Why not a Sable-specific solution, tailored to Sable’s unique qualities? ” He’s not alone. Others wonder how a bureaucratic management plan for nature will be able to accommodate a place Nova Scotians Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle describe in their book A Dune Adrift as “a very peculiar piece of real estate, indeed.”

Photograph courtesy of Roberto Dutesco/Wild Horses of Sable Island Gallery, New York

Sable Island’s history, strategic location, and sheer beauty make it a place where conflicting agendas abound. Where researchers see a colony of grey seals with value for study, fishermen see a threat to the recovery of collapsed cod stocks. Where conservationists see the only known breeding ground of the Ipswich sparrow, oil and gas companies see a potential new source of natural resources.

For Chris Miller, national manager of conservation and climate change for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Sable Island is an ecological wonder. “There are over 350 species of birds,” he says, “a remarkable amount of diversity for a small island.” He hopes the national park designation will protect the local wildlife, but he believes it must be accompanied by legislation that prohibits oil and gas exploration. Drilling has taken place on the island in the past, and three offshore platforms are visible from its beaches today. Still, its long-term viability as an oil and gas source remains tenuous. Exxon Mobil has announced that the Sable Offshore Energy Project, which has generated $1.3 billion in royalties since production began in 1999, will be shut down ahead of schedule, due to rising gas prices and “project economics.” Decommissioning is set to begin in 2012, with a projected closure in four or five years. Encana Corporation’s smaller Deep Panuke project on the Scotian Shelf has experienced repeated delays and, as of this past February, was still waiting to start production.

According to some interested parties, Big Oil isn’t the only threat to the island’s fauna; there is also the fauna itself. In a discussion forum hosted by the Green Horse Society, an online organization devoted to Sable Island studies, one commenter suggested that since the island’s wild horses are technically an introduced species, they are “invasive alien megafauna,” and would have to be eliminated if the National Parks Act was to be followed to the letter. (The horses have been legally protected under the Sable Island Regulations of the Canada Shipping Act since 1961, when a controversial proposal to remove them sparked a letter-writing campaign by Canadian schoolchildren to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.)

Meanwhile, the fishing industry is concerned about Sable Island’s grey seals. On the Scotian Shelf, the island is their main breeding area, and the population is the highest it has been during the more than 200 years the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has kept records. Denny Morrow, recently retired executive director of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association, says that between 350,000 and 400,000 seals feed on the cod and other species on their spawning grounds, infecting fish with a parasite called seal worm that renders them unusable as seafood. The fish packers would like to see the seal population cut in half to give fish stocks a breather, but the national park designation will make a cull that much more unlikely.

So increased tourism remains a concern for all stakeholders—except the government. Make no mistake: Parks Canada wants Canadians to use their national parks. “It’s not protection for protection’s sake,” says Julie Tompa, project manager for the establishment of Sable Island National Park. “It’s protection for the use, enjoyment, and appreciation of Canadians. People need to experience [the parks], whether by getting out there themselves, or through some kind of outreach or education.” She cites research that says Canadians who have the opportunity to experience parks first-hand are far more likely to advocate for their conservation in the long term. But access makes certain demands (the more people you have, the more infrastructure you need to accommodate them), which in an environment as fragile as Sable Island can be hazardous. So lines are drawn in the sand: No wharf, no boardwalks. Definitely no hot dog stands. No feeding the ponies. And whatever you do, don’t dare tell Zoe Lucas she’s no longer welcome.

Zoe Lucas is an independent researcher who has lived on Sable Island since 1982. She first went there forty years ago as a twenty-year-old art student, but something about the place took hold of her, and she switched to the study of natural history. Later, she began volunteering as a cook for research projects on the island, logging enough time there that she succeeded in securing contracts of her own. Today she is arguably the world’s foremost authority on the island’s natural history, the de facto welcoming committee for all visitors, and an advocate for the island’s protection on the mainland, where she is known for her impassioned classroom presentations. She is also the “island perspective” for the Green Horse Society, and since 2002 has maintained its website, a comprehensive reference to all things Sable Island, and probably as close to a visit as most people will ever get.

For some 320 days out of the year, she explores the island, pursuing projects as nature presents them: if she is on her way to do beach bird surveys and notices peculiar wounds on a washed-up seal corpse, she’ll shift gears, adjusting to the rhythms of the seasons. She has spent years observing, collecting data, and publishing papers on a staggering array of subjects: the horses, the seals, the cetaceans; shark predation; the occurrence of oil on seabirds; the amount of plastic that washes up on the beach. Sable Island is her life’s work. “The more you’re on the island,” she says, “the more you wonder about how everything works, how everything fits together. A lot of the island is visible. It’s a place where you can see processes in nature happening. You can see where an animal dies on the dunes, on the grass, where the nutrients are recycled through the system and the grass grows greener and lusher where the dead body was… There’s a clarity here.”

She is the island’s best interpreter, a woman who lives a romantic life by any standard but maintains a realistic view of her situation and her surroundings. While she does not work for the government, she is a vocal supporter of its physical presence, the Sable Island Station, which is operated by the Meteorological Service of Canada. The station comprises a collection of sixteen structures that serve various functions, from storage to sewage treatment, and together work as an environmental monitoring station, a research hub, and the place where the island’s protean human population converges. The station collects data on climatology, atmospheric conditions, and pollution, and provides stewardship, a watchful eye, and infrastructure for any group that comes to Sable. (Gerry Forbes, the station’s manager, is often described as the island’s only other permanent resident, although Lucas insists that while she and Forbes have lived there the longest there is a “community of regulars” who work on the island year to year.)

“It’s great being on an island with no people around,” says Lucas, but she points out that Sable Island is not the unspoiled Eden some people think it is. The cruise ships are new, but tourism is not. “There have been visitors to Sable Island going way back to the 1800s, when people were coming to look at birds and whatnot,” she says. “So the notion that it can be left alone is not going to work. It may be far offshore, but it’s more accessible now because of modern technology: anyone with a boat and a GPS can get to Sable Island. It has to have a human presence now to be protected.” As to whether the national park model is the right way to maintain that presence, she cautiously supports the designation. “If people can come to Sable Island and not harm it, there’s no reason not to allow them,” she says. “It’s good for Sable, and it’s good for people.”

Lucas’s endorsement is significant. “If Gerry and Zoe think a park is the solution, they’re probably right,” says Parker Donham. “Zoe takes very seriously her obligation to communicate about Sable to other people.” And Parks Canada agrees. No matter what else happens after the island is designated a park, Lucas will be permitted to stay on and serve as its unofficial ambassador and host.

Sitting in the Halifax airport, I imagine what it’s like to fly into Sable Island. For a long time, there is only ocean. Then there’s a little wisp in the distance; as I draw nearer, it grows, and soon I see how large the island really is. It is mottled with tan and green, surrounded by blue, rimmed with white surf, like the colours of Earth seen from afar. A wild horse crests the ridge of a grassy dune, its mane caked with salt rime. I think I can make out an abandoned building half buried in the sand. Or perhaps it is a jumble of whale bones washed up on the beach, or the rib of an old ship suddenly exposed in the wind.

Alas, I’ll never know, because I’m flying home instead. I gave myself two days to make it out to the island, but on both mornings fog and unsuitable runway conditions made the flight impossible. It’s a disappointment, and an expensive one, having cost me a flight from Toronto plus two nights’ accommodation. But I take solace in what conservationist Mark Butler mentioned about caring for something you will never experience in person: “I’m probably not going to see the gorillas of Congo, but I’m glad they’re there.”

Many Canadians will never get a chance to visit the majority of our national parks, but we have agreed that they are valuable, and we nevertheless developed a system to protect them. They say something fundamental about our attraction to the country’s various landscapes and regions, and our need to feel that nature can still humble us. But as Parks Canada moves into its second century, it has an additional priority: to make room for the people who live in those landscapes and regions, and who have done the most to shape them in our imaginations—and in this it has once again stayed ahead of the curve.

Until the Sable Island designation, Canada’s newest national park was Torngat Mountains National Park, a vast landscape of bald peaks and plunging fjords along Labrador’s northeastern coast. In the Torngats, Parks Canada is working on a new approach to J. B. Harkin’s old question of conservation versus recreation. Call this massive and remote park a wilderness, and you will be politely corrected. “The focus of our operations up here is very much on celebrating the Inuit homeland,” says Angus Simpson, resource conservation supervisor at the park’s base camp, where he works with the local Inuit staff. “The national park is an appropriate and timely vehicle for helping protect and celebrate [that]… it reflects Inuit’s desire to showcase their traditional land, but also to continue to use it in the way that they have historically.” Gary Baikie, a Labrador Inuk and the park’s visitor experience manager, says, “What we hope people take away from Torngat Mountains National Park is that Inuit are a part of the land, not something introduced to the land, not just visitors to the land. They’re actually a piece of the land that’s important for the sustainability of the environment, the whole ecology.”

Parks Canada has often removed people from places it was turning into parks. If the approach it is testing in the Torngats succeeds, it will broaden the definition of ecotourism to include an obligation to protect and sustain local cultures. It stands in contrast to the ecotourism of, for example, Costa Rica, where critics say the management of national parks has ignored the needs of locals, encouraging a resort-style tourism that endangers the natural spaces that attracted people in the first place. Simple logistics make it unlikely that the Torngats or Sable Island will ever face such threats—but only Parks Canada can make that a certainty. And maintaining ecological integrity becomes more complicated when humans are included in the ecosystem. At first glance, Sable Island might seem like a Shangri-La untouched by humanity. But the footprints in the sand tell a different story. To spend any time speaking to those who care about Sable Island is to understand how deeply it is tied to the culture and people of Nova Scotia.

Sable Island National Park will test our collective ability to embrace restraint in the service of environmental integrity. Parks Canada is considering plans to employ technology to create alternative, off-island Sable experiences that will give all Canadians a chance to visit there in the virtual realm. For its part, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society imagines “a state-of-the-art pavilion in Halifax where people can go to learn about the ecology and cultural significance of Sable Island without having to actually set foot on the island itself.” The question is, will this be enough? Zoe Lucas remains optimistic. “Just because a place is a park doesn’t mean you suddenly fling open the doors and there’s a rush,” she says. “The positive thing about Sable is that Parks Canada is taking over a location that’s already restricted… People already know that it’s environmentally vulnerable and sensitive, and that activities will be restricted. So it’s not like we have to come up with a whole bunch of new rules to try and change people’s behaviour out here. They are already behaving very well.”

Sable Island National Park asks us to put aside the dreams of conquest that drove early explorers, to trade direct gratification for the more abstract satisfaction of knowing a national treasure is in good hands. It challenges us to embrace the idea of a park that we all help create, if only in our imaginations. Or, if we do try to visit, to accept the island’s terms, whether that means deferring to the Nova Scotians who know it best, taking our garbage with us when we leave, or (as in my case) trying to embrace the disappointment when a flight is cancelled because the runway is under the ocean.

This appeared in the May 2012 issue.

J. R. McConvey
J. R. McConvey created the National Parks Project, a series of short films.
Roberto Dutesco
Roberto Dutesco publishes regularly in Vogue and Vanity Fair.