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Open letter supports fired Alberta park employee, warns of 'deep fear' in civil service

posted Sep 29, 2015, 11:42 AM by SOS SaveOceanScience   [ updated Sep 29, 2015, 11:43 AM ]

Published on: September 23, 2015 | Last Updated: September 23, 2015 6:50 PM MDT

John Wilmshurst, a resource conservation manager with Parks Canada, speaks in May 2014 about the receding glaciers of the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park.

John Wilmshurst, a resource conservation manager with Parks Canada, speaks in May 2014 about the receding glaciers of the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park. JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The firing of federal scientists who voice concerns about national parks has instilled a “deep fear” across departments in the civil service,  more than 100 former Parks Canada employees warn in an open letter.

The unprecedented missive, released Wednesday and signed by 118 former Parks Canada managers and employees, adds fuel to the controversy  about the muzzling of federal scientists by the Harper government.

“As those who dare to speak up on issues related to the ecological integrity of the national parks or the commemorative integrity of the national historic sites, are removed from their positions, a deep fear is instilled to ensure that those remaining toe the party line,” says the letter.

The letter points specifically to the mid-June firing, with no reasons given, of John Wilmshurst, a Jasper Park senior scientist with a 15-year career in Parks Canada.

“The reason for Dr. Wilmshurst’s firing is unknown,” the letter says. “But it appears consistent with the purging of science-based management taking place in the national parks of Canada.”

“Like a spectre, the threat of these seemingly arbitrary firings has haunted not just the corridors of Parks Canada but also those of other federal departments,” says the letter.

Wilmshurst declined to comment on the letter. 

The muzzling of scientists is part of a bigger issue  the undermining of a scientific approachin assessing the impact of commercial development in parks,  said Nik Lopoukhine, retired director general for National Parks Directorate, Parks Canada. 

“The issue here is the broader question of scientific staff told not to speak, and environmental policies being eroded,” he said in an interview.

“The final straw was the August announcement on Lake Louise (ski resort) expansion — we decided we need to step up and say something.”

Under law, national parks are mandated to preserve ecosystems, wildlife and endangered species within their boundaries and must take a scientific  approach to protection. But the Lake Louise expansion, which would allow the resort to double its size to accommodate 11,000 skiers, was done with no sign of consideration for the scientific concerns of parks managers, said Lopoukhine.

The letter also warns that if the scientists can’t speak out, the public is not fully informed about what’s happening in parks.

“A government that blocks, twists or diverts this communication commits an undemocratic act by denying their citizens the knowledge to make informed decisions,” says the letter.

“We are concerned that the public is also not getting the full story about the state of the parks,” said Jim Barlow, retired national parks manager in British Columbia.

“I don’t have a problem with good facilities and tourists using the parks, but we don’t want that development to end up destroying the ecology the parks are supposed to protect,” he said.

The government recently approved a summer season at Norquay ski hill in grizzly habitat near Banff, and there will be some new accommodation at Jasper’s Maligne Lake.

The letter asks the Liberals, New Democrats and Green parties to outline what commitments they are prepared to make “to protect and restore” a scientific approach to protecting the parks  and “science capacity” in other federal departments.

The letter also calls for  an investigation in to the firing of Wilmshurst and “politically motivated dismissals of scientists and managers” with a view to possible reinstatement. It also urges voters to ask their local candidates about the issue of muzzling scientists.

Canada established parks in 28 unique natural regions to ensure original ecosystems survive in a protected place in the country, noted Barlow.

There are many benefits, he said. For instance, when Saskatchewan ran out of seed for soft white spruce, national parks there were able to provide, he added.

Barlow also said the groups of retired employees are confident they will not face repercussions for speaking out. “It would be pretty distressing”  if people could not speak out in a democracy, he said.

Parks Canada’s Jasper office did not comment by press time on the letter.