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Protecting Canada's vast wilderness. Canadians, taking wildlands less for granted, want more national parks

Rocky shores splashed with sun and waves. Verdant forests dripping with rain. Range after range of mountains standing majestic. Lakes and muskeg spotted with ducks and geese. Prairies stretching for mile after mile. With their vast territory, Canadians are used to such natural beauty. But as the pressures of rising population and development increase, they are beginning to take it less for granted. Many want more land set aside in parks.

``Canada is greatly blessed with tremendous wilderness facilities,'' says Kevin McNamee, executive director of the private Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. ``But in terms of what we have consciously done to protect land, in this country we are behind.''

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``We, as Canadians, tend to think it [the wilderness] has always been there and it always will be. But slowly and inexorably, it is disappearing. These are areas you cannot replace,'' he adds.

One indication that this growing public concern is having an impact on the government was the creation of a new 15,440-square-mile park on Saturday -- Ellesmere Island National Park. The park, located on the most northern island in Canada's Artic archipelago, is now Canada's second-largest park.

Formal negotiations begin today to create a second new park -- a 60-mile-long stretch at the southern end of British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands.

This proposed new park, South Moresby Island National Park, has been a subject of battle between logging interests and conservationists for years. But now the province of British Columbia and the federal government are agreed, at least in principle, on setting aside the south of Moresby Island and numerous nearby islands as a wilderness park.

A spokesman for Parks Canada, Jim Shearon, says: ``This is our No. 1 priority for establishing a new national park.''

Before the addition of Ellesmere Park, Canada had 31 national parks. They covered about 54,000 square miles and another nearly 100,000 square miles in dozens of provincial parks. It is the third-largest park system in the world, after the United States and Australia.

Ellesmere Park adds an area twice as big as Massachusetts to the national park system. It is mostly a frozen wilderness, so remote that it may be visited by fewer than 100 people a year.

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The park includes an environmentally unique spot -- Lake Hazen. Because of the shape of the surrounding mountains, the lake area is relatively warm in summer. Musk ox, hares, and other creatures survive there, well north of their usual habitat. Canada wants to preserve this area for the future, when access to the region may be easier.

But the addition of Ellesmere Park, and eventually of South Moresby, does not satisfy a growing number of park advocates.

Even with these additions, Canada will have far less parkland than the US, which has around 1,142,000 square miles in parks or wilderness area, including vast areas of Alaska. In terms of percentage of total national territory set aside as parkland, Canada doesn't even rank in the top 20 nations.

Not including Ellesmere, Canada has 3.85 acres of parkland per resident, a slightly higher figure than the 3.23 acres for each US resident. With a population of 26 million compared to about 240 million in the US, Canada has experienced less pressure to set aside parks and formal wilderness areas.

Even though most Canadians live within some 200 miles of the US border, many still have relatively easy access to wilderness.

But, says Mr. McNamee, the tendency of Canadians to take their wilderness for granted is changing.

One sign of this was the public reaction when Suzanne Blais-Grenier, Macmillan's predecessor as minister of the environment, suggested logging and mining be allowed in national parks. It prompted such a storm that, when he took over in August 1985, Macmillan indicated he would not even consider such activity in parks.

Another indication of greater concern was the success of environmentalists in making the protection of South Moresby a national issue. In March, a caravan promoting the establishment of the park crossed Canada from St. John's, Newfoundland, to Vancouver, B.C., receiving a considerable welcome from the public.

British Columbia's government appointed a special eight-person advisory committee in 1985 to look at various park and wilderness controversies. Its report, last spring, recommended, among other things, that the provincial and federal governments negotiate to create a national park in the South Moresby area.

South Moresby Park will be far more accessible than Ellesmere. Perhaps some 2,000 people in all visited this wild area last year, getting there by boat, float aircraft, or helicopter. There are no roads in the park area.

Although it took environmentalists more than a decade of campaigning to bring the South Moresby Park issue to its current stage, negotiators still have some issues to settle. The federal-provincial officials must fix the exact boundaries of the park. The federal government wants to extend them a bit north of the boundaries suggested by the Wilderness Advisory Committee.

Environmentalists would like to stop logging on Lyell Island at the north end of the park area and include unlogged portions of that island in the park, contrary to the committee's proposal. The negotiators must determine what compensation to give the logging company, which has a license for part of the designated park area. The federal government has promised to share half the cost with the provincial government. The company would prefer alternative forest lands to payment.

The federal government wants to establish park administration terms that will win approval of the 2,000 or so Haida Indians on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Although most live north of Moresby Island they treasure it because of its archaelogical and ``heritage'' sites.

The negotiations are expected to take some months.

The province currently owns the land. Before turning it over to Parks Canada, it will want details spelled out on costs, tourism rights, and so on. Parks Canada plans to leave it for some years as a pure wilderness area, with no trails or other park facilities.

Usually it takes 10 to 15 years for an area to be designated a park in Canada. Macmillan, the federal environmental minister, has named a seven-person task force to look into methods for facilitating the establishment of national parks. The group is scheduled to report by the end of next month.

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