Preserving ecological integrity is a priority for all of us here at Ontario Parks. But what exactly does ecological integrity look like? Algonquin Provincial Park naturalist David LeGros explains…
When I start many of my evening shows at Algonquin, I often ask the audience if they like nature.
I usually have a lot of hands up, but there are always a few that don’t raise them. I tell those people, “Maybe you’re in the wrong place, because Algonquin is full of nature.” I know these people may not have been paying attention to what I was saying or decided not to participate in my survey, but the crowd always laughs.
However, this got me thinking about why we go to parks instead of staying home or visiting a big city…
We are here to spend time in a natural environment, explore, relax and have fun with family and friends.
In black and white
At Ontario Parks, maintaining healthy, natural and functional ecosystems is a priority for us; It is even written in our legislation:
Ecological integrity (IE) is “a condition in which the biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems and the composition and abundance of native species and biological communities are characteristic of their natural regions and the rates of change and ecosystem processes are not they are hindered. 2006, c. 12, art. 5 (2).”
We usually just visit our parks, but animals, like this northern two-lined salamander, live there full time. We need to make sure we balance the needs of people with the needs of nature.
Sounds good, but what does that really mean for our favorite parks?
Well, it’s complicated and different in each park, but Ultimately, our commitment to ecological integrity means we’re working hard to maintain or restore the naturalness of your favorite parks.
NO, NO, well
Ecological integrity can be a difficult and ever-changing thing to identify.
It’s often easier to spot where ecological integrity needs help: a mowed lawn with only a couple of types of plants (often non-native species) living in it, or a stream that has been diverted into a concrete-lined underground bed where natural vegetation and fish cannot live.
In short, the ecological integrity of a place is the totality of that place.
This is how it should be, as far as possible. A nearly complete, natural place means it’s a good place to explore, for wildlife to live, and it exists whether we’re there or not.
In the first half of the 21st century, a conservation and ecology pioneer named Aldo Leopold wrote extensively on the subject, including The Sand County Almanac (1966).
This entire essay could simply be a reflection on some of his powerful quotes, but this one is very powerful:
“A thing is good when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to the opposite.”
What happens when we lose ecological integrity?
It’s happening all around us. A loss of pollinators and flying insects leading to reduced plant community health and less food for birds.
The exuviae (skin of shed larvae) of dragonflies found on coastal rocks. Healthy environments will have diverse aquatic communities
Groups of invasive species alter entire habitats, reducing biodiversity. Large areas are covered in concrete, so rainwater runs off, quickly causing flooding and erosion.
I could go on.
Often, one negative impact on the landscape causes another and another.
If you didn’t like the above quote from Leopold, how about one from Gord Downie?
“Look when it starts to fall apart, man, it really falls apart.”
Your parks are not just places to visit and enjoy
Healthy forests are home to all types of organisms. Fungi are key to breaking down once-living matter and circulating nutrients through the ecosystem.
Turns out they do things for you even when you’re away.
Our protected landscapes:
- produce oxygen
- prevent erosion
- Protect drinking water in the headwaters of many rivers and lakes.
- act as a refuge and population source for many types of wildlife to repopulate neighboring areas
And those are just a few examples.
Maintaining the ecological integrity of our landscape is a challenge
We are trying to balance human activity and use of our parks, while keeping them healthy so that nature can survive there too.
This means that in many parks we have areas especially for people, such as campgrounds, beaches, and hiking trails. But we also maintain other areas that cannot be accessed at all, strictly for natural reasons.
Wetlands are among Ontario’s most valuable habitats. They are home to a wide variety of species.
You’ll know EI in our landscape when you see healthy native plants and animals, clean water flowing naturally through a landscape, and natural soil that supports them.
Provincial parks protect pristine places that look like no one has ever visited before.
How does Ontario Parks care for the landscape?
Who doesn’t like toads? Park staff work hard to keep our parks healthy and as natural as possible.
In a park with intense human activity, it could mean removing invasive species from a small patch of rare habitat or carefully constructing a boardwalk to avoid trampling sensitive habitat.
In a natural park with a lot of intact habitat, it could mean doing almost nothing, letting nature carry out its own processes.
The processes can be as dramatic as failing to control an outbreak of native insects that defoliate an entire forest, or even letting a forest fire burn after a lightning strike, allowing the forest to regenerate naturally, creating new habitats.
Other examples of EI work in parks may include:
- conduct environmental assessments when planning construction of a new park building and work to limit the impact on the environment
- ensure that any equipment coming from outside the park is clean and free of weed seeds (it is much easier to prevent the arrival of an invasive species than to try to eradicate it once established)
- Thinning of an unnatural red pine plantation to allow natural regeneration of vegetation.
- do not rake or groom a beach; a natural coastline is home to specialized plants and animals
- Ban the use of live baitfish to prevent the spread of diseases and non-native fish.
- remove an unnecessary dam to restore the natural water level or shoreline, or on the other hand, maintain a dam to prevent the spread of invasive species
It takes everyone to protect nature
No person (or park) is an island. We are all connected and what happens in one place matters in another.
Imagine life without your favorite provincial park…
None of these special places are isolated and kept safe in a jar in perpetuity. It takes work. Parks staff work hard to maintain EI, but we need your help.
Remember: each of these places is special. There is only one Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, one Wabakimi Provincial Park or one Wheatley Provincial Park.
Want to help protect our parks?
If you’re like me and love our parks, there are some simple things you can do to help protect our natural spaces:
- Make sure your boots and tent are free of mud and invasive plant seeds when you go to one park and then another.
- do not use soaps in the lake (this can feed algae and lead to potentially dangerous algal blooms)
- do not move firewood; buy it where you burn it. Many serious forest pests are easily transported in this way.
- Drive slowly and carefully on park roads, keeping a close watch for crossing wildlife.
- Do not cut the vegetation on your campsite.
- Don’t remove natural objects like rocks, plants, animals, wood, bones, antlers and more from a park – nature needs them.
- report wildlife observations to a park office or a citizen science platform such as eBird, iNaturalist, or Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. Sharing this information gives a better idea of what lives in our parks and the more we know, the better we can protect it.
Inspired to help protect the EI of our parks? Check out our ecological integrity files!