In this week's episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Dawn Carr, the executive director of the Canadian Parks Council, a network of national, provincial, and territorial parks across Canada. Carr acknowledges that nature is important to human health, and she describes how the Canadian Parks Council aims to ensure that parks are readily available to all Canadians, including indigenous communities and the nation’s many urban residents. Planning for the future is another priority for Carr, who explores how climate change is already impacting the famously frigid nation and how policymakers are working to protect and restore critical ecosystems.
Editor’s Note: Next week, we’ll release the first episode of our month-long spin-off series, “Big Decisions: The Future of US Environmental and Energy Policy.” For this series, which will air in our same Resources Radio time slot every Tuesday in October, RFF President Richard G. Newell and RFF Board of Directors Chair Sue Tierney will share guest-hosting duties; they will talk with leading decisionmakers, analysts, researchers, and reporters about the big decisions that will impact US environmental and energy policy in the years to come. Stay tuned for more!
Listen to the Podcast
- Nature provides both personal and economic benefits: “There are benefits for me as an individual to connect with nature. From a mental health perspective, I'm much calmer when I'm looking out my window at green space. When there are stressful experiences that are occurring in our lives—such as this year, 2020, which is not a normal year—getting out into nature has a tremendous impact on our health and well-being … that ends up having some pretty significant economic impacts, as well.” (8:32).
- Making parks accessible for historically excluded communities: “Historically speaking, national parks, provincial parks, and state parks in the United States [have provided] opportunities for more privileged families … They do often require significant resources to experience them. So, as we talk about the importance of connecting with nature, I think that it behooves us as government entities and others that are in this space … to ensure that [parks] become more equitable and inclusive.” (11:20).
- Protecting natural ecosystems and preparing for climate change: “Climate change is having a humongous and very significant impact, especially to our northern communities … From a parks perspective and a government perspective, we're very much trying to collaborate on ways to better adapt to climate change, by protecting and restoring ecosystems. They are very resilient, but how can we restore and protect these places so that our cultural and natural resources continue to thrive? That's a real challenge.” (21:51)
Top of the Stack
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
- “Public Land Conflicts and Controversies: The Designation of National Monuments in the Western United States” by Margaret Walls
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Dawn Carr, executive director of the Canadian Parks Council, a network of national, provincial, and territorial parks across Canada. I'll ask Dawn about why connecting with nature is important and how the Council works to enhance access to the natural world. We'll also talk about finding ways to make access to parks more equitable and how climate change is affecting how governments will need to manage their parks into the future. Stay with us.
All right, Dawn Carr from the Canadian Parks Council, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Dawn Carr: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, it is our pleasure. We’re going to talk today about parks in Canada, and we're going to run through all sorts of interesting questions. But before we get into our main conversation, we always like to ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental issues in the first place. So, how did you come to be involved in working in the environment?
Dawn Carr: Oh, well, that's a good question to start off. I think, like most people, I was fortunate to have some exposure to nature as a young child, although I grew up in a really urban city, just on the outskirts of Toronto. So, from a Canada-US perspective, that's the sort of fifth largest city that we've got here. And really, my exposure to nature and my interest in getting involved in environmental issues didn't start until I was a teenager. When I was 16, I really had my first opportunity to work outside of the big, urban city for the entire summer as a Junior Ranger, which was a government program established to help support work opportunities for youth. And that was really my first exposure to the idea of working and having a career in the environmental sector. From that moment on, I was hooked. I think all of my university, my college, my grad school, all my work opportunities that I pursued from that moment on, were really focused on parks and protected areas and working within different park agencies in Canada. So, that's what solidified my interest for sure.
Daniel Raimi: Great. That's really interesting. Well, can you tell us now a little bit about the organization that you now lead, the Canadian Parks Council? Maybe give us an introduction to the organization, including how you work with different provincial, territorial, and other government stakeholders.
Dawn Carr: Sure. So, the Canadian Parks Council, it's a really interesting organization. It has been in existence since 1962, so it's a fairly old institution. And although it's not incorporated, it is an organization that's been run just really at the goodwill of our national, territorial, and provincial governments, mainly dealing with and focusing on parks and protected area issues since that time. So, as an organization, it essentially functions as a board of directors. The heads of the national, territorial, and provincial park agencies sit on this board and that makes up 14 people. So, we've got 10 provinces, three territories, and our Parks Canada, our national member. And these 14 individuals all work on issues of common interest.
So, I'm their executive director. They get together monthly, or at least the executive committee does. And the full board meets about four or five times a year. And together they select all sorts of issues that are of a common concern. And I, as their executive director, work on either implementing contracts, or they support me through their staff, and we create working groups to implement opportunities to tackle those interests that are all shared. So, that's how the council works. And it's been a really fun experience for me as their executive director. This is my eighth year doing this job. So, I've grown into this role. And what's become really apparent through all of this is just the opportunities that we've had in the past number of years to expand our network to work across the landscape and develop stronger relationships with other stakeholders, which has been a really exciting aspect of this job.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Great. Well, we're going to talk about all those issues in just a few minutes. But before we do, can I ask you to describe just kind of the geographic scale and scope of the parks that are part of this network, part of the national, provincial and territorial organizations that you mentioned?
Dawn Carr: Yeah, and I think that's one of the most exciting things. When people ask me about my job... And while the organization itself is quite small, it represents much larger organizations and networks. So, when you think about Canada's entire parks and protected areas network, which expands beyond the work of the Canadian Parks Council, that incorporates about 2 million square kilometers, which is about 780,000 square miles. And that includes national, provincial, territorial, municipal, and indigenous protected areas, and also private protected areas. So, it's a really large network. And then, when you think about just the Canadian Parks Council—this is the work that I help to support through national, provincial, and territorial governments—my board represents the 14 individuals, but together they manage over 2,700 different parks. And that encapsulates about 7.1 percent of Canada's total land base, which is huge. So, that part's really exciting. And it really does encompass those opportunities to connect people with nature, but also to protect Canada's biodiversity and cultural diversity as well.
Daniel Raimi: Mm-hmm. Yeah, the scale of the parks that are part of the network is pretty astonishing. And I was learning about this by looking at maps on your website in preparation for our conversation. And it's really a pretty amazing network.
Dawn Carr: Yeah, it is amazing. And actually, when you think about these organizations too, it's not just the land base that has scale and scope, but also their contribution to other benefits like economic benefits, social benefits, those types of things. Just in terms of the number of people that work within these organizations, it's over 5,000 full-time equivalents. And the people that come and visit these places—this is just based on our 2017-18 statistics, and I'm so interested to see what changes this year because of COVID and this interest that exists now to connect more with nature—but in 2017-18, there were over 57 million visitors that visited these places within our network. So, it has a huge opportunity just with these organizations working together through the Canadian Parks Council to have influence and impact at very local levels. And so, while I work at a fairly high strategic and policy level, the operationalization of our interests and work together can have a pretty profound impact at that local or regional level.
Daniel Raimi: Right. And when we think about that impact, one of the goals that the Parks Council has articulated that I was looking at in a 2014 report that you all published is the goal of connecting Canadians with nature. So, at the risk of sounding dense, can I just ask you to help us understand why it's important for people to connect with nature in the first place? And what is the goal of connecting people with this massive parks network?
Dawn Carr: Probably there are a couple of different ways of looking at that. And if I was an individual just sitting here as I am currently in my office, looking out my window at a natural setting, there are benefits for me as an individual to connect with nature. From a mental health perspective, I'm much calmer when I'm looking out my window at green space. When there are stressful experiences that are occurring in our lives—such as this year, 2020, which is not a normal year—getting out into nature has a tremendous impact on our health and well-being. So, that's all really important. And that ends up having some pretty significant economic impacts as well. The healthier we are, the less likely we're going to not be able to work and contribute to society in those ways, but also from a healthcare system perspective, the costs are much reduced.
I think also, from my perspective and the work that I'm doing, there's a huge interest because of how much I deeply care about our natural and cultural resources and just the significance and importance of green space to our survival as a human species and what we do on this planet. I have a really strong interest in wanting to create opportunities, especially for children and youth and their families, to connect with nature. Because there's so much evidence that shows that the more opportunities children and youth have to connect with nature and experience all of those benefits that I talked about, the greater likelihood that they're going to want to protect these places and contribute to supporting them as they become adults. So, I think it's not always obvious why connecting with nature is such an important thing for all of us in society to support. And looking at those different perspectives is part of the work that I do in the Canadian Parks Council.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, absolutely. And your own experience, I mean, illustrates that to a T, right, with your experience in high school and then going on now to lead the Parks Council.
Dawn Carr: Exactly. Mm-hmm.
Daniel Raimi: So, one of the challenges that I imagine you confront, and your colleagues confront, is trying to address the potential for some people to not have access to these wonderful parks. In particular, like if I'm thinking about a remote park that's in a really beautiful and isolated place, not everybody has the money to get in a plane and fly to that location and stay in a hotel or a cabin or whatever. Can you talk a little bit about that particular challenge and trying to find ways to provide equitable access to these wonderful resources?
Dawn Carr: That's an extremely important question, one that I think we're continuously trying to grapple with, especially these past few years. Historically speaking, national parks, provincial parks, these state parks in the US, they provide opportunities for more privileged families when you think about it. To get out into these spaces, they do often require significant resources to experience them. So, as we talk about the importance of connecting with nature, which we just kind of addressed, I think that it behooves us as government entities and others that are in this space and care deeply about them, to ensure that they become more equitable and inclusive.
I think some of the ways that we can do that from a policy perspective is to partner better with other like-minded institutions that see the value and importance of connecting with nature, like the education sector. I think there are tremendous opportunities to bridge relationships there, to enable schools to gain better access. If we can minimize the cost of transportation by providing those opportunities to pay for transportation, from an education standpoint to get these kids into our places in a way that allows them to experience what it's like to canoe or hike for the first time or participate in an interpretive or educational experience that explains all of the different senses of why plants smell and taste and feel differently, and why they all have different kinds of values that are important to all of us. I think if we work with the education sector, there's a lot of potential there.
I also think that just enabling greater communication between health and park sectors is also really important. As an example, I know Ontario Parks—which is one of our largest provinces here in Canada and has a really significant park system—has employed "Healthy parks, healthy people," which is an international campaign slogan. It's one actually that the National Park Service in the US is also really working strongly and hard on. They're really doing that kind of work, bridging relationships between the health sector and nature-based recreation sectors to show all of those benefits that they provide.
So, I think we just need to be creative and actually think a little bit more outside the box, allow ourselves to be in maybe some uncomfortable situations, having conversations with new people that will then reveal some of the potential that could exist that we may not currently see. So, part of that, Daniel, I'm super excited and was so happy to be participating in this conversation with you is because I don't often have the opportunity to speak and have a conversation with those that are part of your audience. So, I think as these kinds of conversations continue and expand across the landscape, we'll find smarter ways of working better together and find really creative things that we can do to better connect Canadians, North Americans, and our global citizens better with nature, so we appreciate and value it more.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And we're going to talk in a couple of minutes about potential research questions that might be able to inform your work. And I imagine we could touch on this issue of equitable access in those discussions too. One related question that comes to mind, Dawn, is the distribution of parks geographically in terms of whether they're mostly in rural locations or urban locations or whether they're well-mixed. And when we think about different people and different populations having access to these parks, can you just help us understand how things are spread out in terms of rural versus urban divides?
Dawn Carr: That's a big challenge for us here in Canada, because it's a huge country and 80 percent of our population lives within a hundred kilometers of our border with the United States. So, we have a highly urbanized population. Our population is only 37 million people total for our entire country. And if we're all situated, for the most part, along our southern border, access between that urban-rural divide is fairly significant. So, if you think about all of these very important national, provincial, territorial parks that are protected outside of urban communities, they're only vicariously appreciated, I think, by the vast majority of people in Canada that live in these urban centers. So, we need to think about how we connect and grow awareness of these places and provide opportunities either virtually or in situ, how do we increase those opportunities for Canadians and others to truly understand the value of these places that are outside their immediate reach.
And that is a major challenge, which is probably why … the Canadian Parks Council and much of the work that I've been supporting over these past few years is centered around that idea of “parks for all.” That's a term that's being used in other places, but from a Canadian perspective, really what that means is us working across the landscape, different organizations, both when you think those within the sector and allied sectors and the different levels of government, working with indigenous peoples, working with nature conservancies, we are all working toward figuring out how all of our places connect so that we can better communicate how to access them and protect them from a public standpoint.
We have a long way to go there. And I think there's tremendous potential. And if we have greater opportunities to share and showcase what our system is all about, and that there's places just outside your front door, if you live in an urban center compared to a rural sort of community, then I think people will have a much better understanding about how they see themselves within that system of systems. Because that's really what parks and protected areas are: we are networks of networks of networks. And I think we could do a much better job at showcasing how all of these places connect and are relevant to our health and well-being no matter where we are.
Daniel Raimi: Right. That's really interesting, and it makes a lot of sense. So, you mentioned just a moment ago, working with indigenous communities and bringing in indigenous voices into your work at the Parks Council. Can you give us a little bit of a sense on how those indigenous views and indigenous communities help inform park policy at different levels of government in Canada?
Dawn Carr: Super important question, and it's becoming more and more recognized over the course of time just how critical it is for us to figure out how to better collaborate and work together and what that looks like. So, just in the past few years, there's been a real focus in Canada on really reconciling our relationship not only with the land and our places and parks, but also with each other, different perspectives, indigenous and non-indigenous. So, I would say indigenous voices need to be amplified in the work that together we all do in this business of parks and protected areas and just understanding how living sustainably requires looking at these different perspectives. One of the most interesting things that I think I've been so privileged to experience is opportunities to grow and learn from and meet indigenous elders and leaders across Canada that are in this conservation sector.
The biggest thing that I think I have learned in this work—the takeaway that I have, which informs everything I do now in my work and actually personal life as well—is having a deep appreciation for the different perspectives and worldviews that exist here in Canada and how by listening to those different worldviews and seeing how we live through those different worldviews, we will have a much better opportunity to work collaboratively together. And I guess what I mean by that is the indigenous worldview, it's very different from the worldview that I was brought up in as a non-indigenous person. And I've got great respect for what that worldview is all about.
What I've learned is that it's very much based on the practices of reciprocity, which is in line with my own values about whatever we take from the land we need to give back. It's based on ideas of gratitude and respect and generosity. And looking at how we live on the land and the work that we do in parks from that perspective, it sort of shifts the conversation. And the values are all aligned, I would say. And if we have a much greater opportunity to engage in those kinds of conversations and see our world through these different perspectives and lenses, I think we have a much greater chance of connecting the heart and mind to our work and working hand in hand in ways that probably will create much better outcomes for a sustainable life.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's all very nicely said. So, we've talked about one potential challenge when it comes to access to parks, which is looking to ensure equitable access for everyone. There's another big challenge that I know you're thinking about a lot, which is the challenge of climate change and how it's affecting parks and other wild places both in Canada, and of course around the world. So, can you talk a little bit about how with the governments that you work with, how it's affecting the way that they manage their parks and plan for the future?
Dawn Carr: Oh, it's huge. It is. It's something you cannot escape from, especially in these more northern climates. Climate change is having a humongous and a very significant impact, especially to our northern communities. But given the scope and scale of the park system that I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, you cannot escape the impact that climate change is having to our natural regions and biodiversity. I mean, we see this with all the wildfires or the extreme weather episodes that we're all experiencing nowadays. And so, from a parks perspective and government perspective, we're very much trying to collaborate on ways that we can learn how to better adapt to climate change situations. And this is by protecting and restoring ecosystems. They're very resilient, but how can we restore and protect these places so that our cultural and natural resources continue to thrive? That's a real challenge.
So, the Canadian Parks Council, in one sense—this is where we together can be very effective in bringing together some really smart people to shed light on how parks can help to adapt, but also learn from, influence, and create situations where climate change can be a much better understood phenomenon across different governments. One way we're doing that is we've created an academic partnership to establish an institution called the Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership. “CPCIL” is its acronym. But this Canadian Parks Collective, it's really allowing us to look at issues like climate change. From a professional development standpoint, I know we've got dedicated park leadership programs that are focused really on bringing climate change experts and leaders together so that they can learn from one another and bring back that knowledge to their own institutions so that they can improve how they're managing and adapting to climate change in the future. So, it's a really big issue and I think one that we're going to continue to have to obviously look at and put a lot of resources towards, because climate change isn't going away anytime soon.
Daniel Raimi: Yes. Unfortunately, that is very much the case and we're being reminded of it so frequently these days.
Dawn Carr: Mm-hmm. That's for sure.
Daniel Raimi: So, Dawn, one last question before we go to our Top of the Stack segment. And as you know, RFF is largely a research institution, we have a lot of researchers who listen to our show. And I know that the Parks Council is interested in working with researchers more to answer some really important questions. So, can you give us a sense of maybe a couple of questions that you're trying to tackle that would help inform your work that researchers like those at RFF might be able to actually help you come to some conclusions on?
Dawn Carr: Oh, wow. We are always open to working with researchers; that is for sure. And as I just mentioned, how we have a Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership, that actually has an emerging research network to help identify exactly those kinds of questions that both park agencies have from a sort of an institution or operations standpoint and where there are interests among researchers, both in the academic and non-academic community. So, that's a really hard question for me to answer in a way, because Canada's parks are just so diverse. They are exceptional living laboratories to study key conservation issues like climate change that we just talked about and biodiversity and connectivity. But what's exciting is that parks are also very interested in building those natural science areas with research into human behavior and recreation patterns.
So, I think there's probably an unlimited array just because of the tremendous and far-reaching benefits that parks provide. I think that there are research questions from a natural science perspective, social science perspective, and indigenous ways of knowing. All of these other kinds of questions that can come into play. And I would just say wholeheartedly that the Canadian Parks Council through our academic partnerships that we're continuing to grow are so open to finding ways that we can learn from each other and to support each other's work. So, with RFF, I'm very much interested in growing this relationship and learning more about what you do and then also how we can just benefit from each other's knowledge and space so that we can continue to do better in so many different ways.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Okay. Well, yeah. So, it sounds like the door is open for future conversations about potential research collaborations.
Dawn Carr: Absolutely, definitely.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Well, let's close it out now with our last question, the Top of the Stack question. So, asking you, Dawn, to recommend something that you've read or watched or heard recently that might be related to the environment, even if tangentially, that you think is interesting or fun that you'd recommend to our listeners.
And I'll start with a very brief recommendation of an article that our colleague here at RFF, Margaret Walls, has recently published in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy. It's a journal article, but it's very accessible for our broad audience, it's called “Public Land Conflicts and Controversies: The Designation of National Monuments in the Western United States.” Margaret has been doing lots of work on national monuments here in the US, and this article is really interesting because it explores the history of Western public lands in the US. It talks about their purpose, what they're intended to do, and it really focuses on the relationship between the rural communities that host those monuments and those public lands and the federal government that is maybe seeking to expand those monuments or contract those monuments, and the controversies that arise when those types of decisions are made. So, really interesting article for anyone interested in public lands.
So, now we'll turn it over to you, Dawn. Do you have any recommendations that are at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack?
Dawn Carr: Well, you've got me very interested in that journal article. So, maybe after we're done with the conversation we're having, you can send me a link to it. I'd be very interested in reading it.
Daniel Raimi: Sure thing. And for our listeners, there will be a link to it on the show notes for this episode. So, it should be able to click pretty easily.
Dawn Carr: Perfect. When I'm thinking about recent books or articles that I've read, the one that comes to mind—which up until recently, I don't think I necessarily saw the great connection that it may have with the way I think about work and life and all my interests—but the book itself is called The Vanishing Half. I highly recommend it. It's by an author named Brit Bennett, and she's from California actually. She's an American author. And this book was recommended to me by a very good friend of mine and we're actually going to be discussing it in my book club next week. So, The Vanishing Half. It's very much about exploring racial inequities in the United States in particular, but I think it's got far-reaching implications and ways of thinking beyond that. So, it's really sort of looking at the distribution of wealth and opportunities and privilege and how that all changes depending on where you were born, what skin you've grown up in, and the relationships that you've had over the course of time.
So, I think the reason why it resonates with me, particularly, I think as a book or something that I've read to share within this podcast, is it's got me thinking about the idea of inclusion. And we talked about this earlier about how we need to make our green space, parks, forests, we need to make them more inclusive so people have the opportunity to experience them. But what this book has done for me is to show how social justice issues are very much experienced differently depending on who you are and how you were raised and the opportunities and experiences that you had growing up, per se. So, looking at things from a different perspective, and we talked about this before, is I want to really figure out more ways of sort of breaking down those barriers or unpacking my own privilege backpack, so to speak, so that I can be better at expanding relationships with people that may not necessarily be within my immediate circle of friends.
So, I'm so excited to discuss this book with my book club. And it's one that I just would recommend to others. I couldn't put it down. It was just a great read.
Daniel Raimi: Wow, fantastic. So The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. People can find it online, and again, we'll have a link to it too.
Dawn Carr: Great.
Daniel Raimi: Thank you, Dawn, for that recommendation and for coming on the show and telling us about your work at the Canadian Parks Council. It's really fascinating. And we're really grateful to you for coming on the show today.
Dawn Carr: Well, Daniel, it's been fun. Thanks so much for the invite. This has been great.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants, they do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.