Recently FOW board chair Dave McTeague talked with Shannon Lawr to gain insights into Ontario Parks' management of Wabakimi Provincial Park. Shannon has been Park Superintendent since 2014 and has been with Ontario Parks for 15 years. He previously worked as a canoe and kayak guide in the Killarney area and has training in park management and eco-tourism.
FOW: What are the park superintendant and other staff duties/functions?
Shannon: Every day seems to be different. My responsibility lies with delivering operational objectives for protected areas, supervisor/manager for our park staff, operational safety of our staff, and balancing our budget. Our staff consists of an Assistant Superintendant (42 weeks); biologist (42 weeks); and operations technicians. Our biologist does long term monitoring such as
our lichen sample study plots to better understand forest age and structure, monitors our wildlife cameras and conducts environmental assessment for work permits required for any structural work for outposts/lodges.
FOW: What areas do you oversee?
Shannon: Wabakimi is just one of many parks I manage in my cluster. While Wabakimi is our anchor park, I manage 16 other protected areas in the Wabakimi area, north to the Winisk River the Kopka River and Brightsand in the South. (He also distinguished operating parks like Wabakimi that have fees, from non-operating parks.) We used to be part of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, but no longer. As of June of last year we are now part of the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks. With this change, we’re now also managing conservation reserves like the Attwood and Ogoki.
(In Shannon’s cluster: Provincial Parks: Wabakimi, Brightsand River, Kopka River, Whitesand River, Windigo Bay, Gull River, Kaiashk nature reserve, Obonga-Ottertooth River, Pantagruel Creek, Albany River, Little Current River, MacLeod, Nakina Moraine, Ogoki River, Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River, Sedgman Lake, Winisk River. Conservation Reserves: Nakina Northeast Waterway, Kagianagami Lake, Mojikit Lake, Attwood River, Ottertooth, Garden Pakashkan)
FOW: How does management of the conservation reserves differ from the provincial parks? Shannon: The legislation (Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act) that guides management of provincial parks also applies to conservation reserves. There’s a bit of difference in permitted activities. In a provincial park, depending on the type, there may be limitations to motorized access or tenure for tourism and hunting. Conservation reserves are not managed that way, they’re not broken down into zones, and the level of protection is not as complex.
FOW: Having just been on the Attwood, it is a beautiful wild area with portages that are infrequently traveled. One would hope it would stay that way.
Shannon: Conservation reserves are not part of forest management planning, not available to be logged.
FOW: How often do you get out into the field?
Shannon: Not often enough. Coming from a guiding world, I love paddling. My role is 80 to 90% administrative. I get into the park a couple times a year, never long enough.
FOW: What are your primary summer activities?
Shannon: Planning our biology work, operations work, which portages we’re going to clear, which campsites we want to target for improvement; checking in with commercial tourism operators, reviewing property boundaries, and clean up of old abandoned sites. We also gather data related to historical or cultural sites, looking for signs of disturbance; and we assess impacts of any forest fires.
FOW: What is your policy regarding fires in the park and surrounding areas?
Shannon: Many of the areas we manage are long linear non operating waterway parks where any firefighting decision would rest with the MNRF AFFES (Aviation Forest Fire Emergency Services). When the boundary is so narrow, unless a local community is threatened, the fire may be allowed to let it burn its natural course, based on fire management direction and policies.
One of the reasons Wabakimi Provincial Park was expanded is to have a park big enough to support woodland caribou habitat, but also big enough to support natural environmental functions. So we have the flexibility to look at where the fire started, how it started, and consider if we let it burn its natural course, working closely with the fire folks.
Our (fire) map of the park has three colored areas. The areas we don’t want to burn are marked Red, high value infrastructure like the CNN rail line. Areas marked Orange have a more flexible response where it could burn naturally or some other modified response. Areas marked Green are less risk which we may allow to burn naturally, much of that is north of Whitewater Lake.
FOW: Is fire common in Wabakimi compared with Woodland Caribou which burns a lot?
Shannon: Fire in Wabakimi is drastically different from Woodland Caribou. We have far less fire which doesn’t tend to flare up and burn as fast. Part of it is Woodland Caribou is suffering from a forest die off from an invasive beetle. This year Wabakimi didn’t have a single fire of significance. Last year there was a fire just north of Wabakimi Lake that burned approx. 15,000 hectares. Boreal fire is very mosaic in how it burns. A lot of Wabakimi fires are renewable fires. In 2011 there were some very hot fires in the Palisade River area in the NW area near Burntrock Lake.
FOW: Where are we at in the management plan process?
Shannon: Every Ontario park has to have a management plan, most of them do. A management plan provides an operational guide for staff and the public to understand how it operates and what is permitted and not permitted. In relative terms Wabakimi is very new. The original park was created in 1983 and expanded in 1997, whereas Quetico has been around for 110 years. We have to consider our stakeholders (tourism operators, groups like FOW, also the First Nation communities and territories within the surrounding area and species at risk such as the caribou.
We are working to build understanding about what the park is and isn’t. We’re at a point where we need to get it rolling. Park planning has eight stages. We’re on stage two, the broad strokes background/document stage which talks about what’s in the park, who’s using it, when are they using it, everything we know about Wabakimi. It’s not a decision document. It is available for public comment when completed, hopefully by late winter or early spring (2020).
(Stage one is the Terms of Reference document. The Wabakimi document is dated February 2013.)
Stages three to four are the issues and options stages for how to define areas of the park. Each provincial park has a classification, such as wilderness, natural environment, waterway or recreational parks. To compare, Quetico is a wilderness park and Sleeping Giant is a natural environment park. Within each park we also have zones, which could be access, waterway, nature reserves, cultural heritage, wilderness or development. Each zone has criteria to define what can and can’t happen. This is where public comment will be really important.
FOW: What are your current Goals and Objectives?
Shannon: Increasing visitation is one of our goals, welcoming more people. This has to be well managed to provide a safe, rewarding place to visit and mitigate any impacts. We have marketing plans and we track our demographics to see who is visiting from where. It’s challenging to get information to visitors that we’re not Quetico 2.0 with the same level of service. (well developed campsites etc.) For us it’s celebrating our remoteness and uniqueness.
FOW: Do you have park permit statistics?
Shannon: We track camper (paddler) nights, one person per night. Our three year average is about 4500 camper nights within Wabakimi Provincial Park. The average trip is five to six nights. In contrast, Quetico has roughly 50 to 60,000 camper nights a year. Camper nights do not include outpost or lodge stays. Those are not tracked at all, that’s one of our challenges. Crown land camping permits are not tracked in our camper night count.
Paddlers in non-operating parks like Albany River require crown land camping permits. However, Ontario residents are not required to get permits to paddle non-operating parks. (eg. Albany River) Park staff can assist with clarification of permit requirements.
FOW: Tell us about your canoe route maintenance?
Shannon: We try to cover half the park every summer. We have a partnership with First Nation communities for two, two-person crews.
The park map canoe routes are based on the Nipigon Canoe Country maps, covering a majority of the pre-expansion Wabakimi Provincial Park, though not so much north of the Whitewater area. The route info is from the 60s. That’s when the provincial government had more funding and maintained a lot of canoe routes all over the province. Part of the reason we’ve stuck with those routes without drastic changes is because the park management plan is not done yet. In order to create a route, even if it was there in the 1940s or earlier Hudson Bay Company era, if it wasn’t maintained by the MNR after or through the 1960s, an environmental assessment would need to be done in order to better understand if there are cultural heritage values or other connections to indigenous communities.
FOW: How do we get Ontario provincial government to see the economic value of parks and outdoors wilderness activities to generate support for resource protection?
Shannon: Ontario Parks has an initiative called Healthy Parks, Healthy People (ontarioparks.com/hphp); connecting the importance of spending time outdoors with improving health. We are getting buy-in from health professionals. Some doctors are prescribing outdoors and wilderness activities.-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------