Throughout the pandemic, natural areas across the country have experienced a dramatic surge in interest and visitation as people have sought out the healing properties of nature as an antidote to the isolation of lockdowns. This trend has been fueled by a growing body of research and scientific evidence highlighting the physical, social and psychological benefits of engaging with the natural world. Researchers have shown that visiting, viewing, hearing and even smelling nature can help reduce risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer, boost our immune systems, reduce stress and support our mental health.
Over the past 20 years, conservation organizations and parks agencies around the world have utilized this research to reposition and market parks and conservation areas as sites of health promotion. In 2000, Parks Victoria in Australia launched the Healthy Parks Healthy People (HPHP) movement, which aims to encourage the connections between a healthy environment and healthy society. In 2005, the Canadian Parks Council, a collaboration of all federal, provincial and territorial park agencies across Canada, rolled out their own version of HPHP, Healthy by Nature, which was followed in 2014 by their Connecting Canadians with Nature campaign, aimed at promoting the health and well-being of Canadians through park visitation.
Parks Canada now promotes health and wellness-focused activities and programming, including “forest bathing” and a Mood Walks program for mental health in Rouge National Urban Park. Ontario Parks launched their HPHP initiatives in 2015, and now offer free day use of provincial parks on Healthy Parks Healthy People day (July 16) as well as a range of health-related challenges designed to encourage park visitation and outdoor recreation. Ontario’s Conservation Authorities similarly encourage hiking as a form of health promotion through their Step Into Nature campaign. Most recently, BC Parks, and now Ontario, have rolled out a Parks Prescription (PaRx) program, which allows doctors to prescribe doses of nature to their patients.
While there is a significant body of evidence showing the human health benefits of nature, it remains unclear how increasing human visitation to natural areas will support the health and well-being of nature. Over the last 10 years, the number of visitors to Canada’s national parks has risen 30 per cent, from roughly 12 million to more than 16 million visitors per year. Provincial and regional conservation agencies have noted similar increases. As Parks Ontario noted in a recent Facebook post, their online reservation system has seen its highest volumes of traffic ever. On March 2, Ontario Parks reported more than 34,000 users logged on to the online booking system between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., representing a 200 per cent increase from the same day and time the previous year. There have been reports and rumours of bots being programmed to book large blocks of campsites for resale on secondary markets including Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace. Regional conservation authorities have been experiencing similar increases in visitation, with some, such as Grey Sauble, reporting at least a 50 per cent increase and warning of problems associated with “over-tourism.”
In reality, the interest and promotion of the health benefits of nature is putting more pressure on the already stressed environments of parks and conservation areas. A 2016 Parks Canada report (State of Canada’s Natural and Cultural Heritage Places) found that 46 per cent of national park ecosystems in Canada were in fair or poor condition. Throughout the pandemic, parks across Canada have faced issues with littering and waste disposal, with Ontario parks reporting widespread littering as well as overcrowded trails and backcountry campsites. Ontario Parks pointed out the problem on its Facebook page and website, posting pictures of trash piling up on beaches, parks, campgrounds and the on-site washrooms. Another issue has been with traffic and parking, with popular parks, conservation areas and trailheads experiencing traffic jams and roadsides congested with vehicles.
While this renewed focus on the health benefits of the natural world is a welcome development, we should be wary of nature simply being rebranded as a “service provider” from which we can consume health benefits in the same way we go to the pharmacy to buy medications. While conservation organizations promote the ethics and principles of Leave No Trace as a way to mitigate the environmental impacts of outdoor recreation, solely adhering to Leave No Trace guidelines is inadequate.
In order to promote both human and environmental health and well-being when engaging with natural areas, we need to do more than Leave No Trace. We need to recognize and foster the reciprocal relationship between humans and the non-human world and engage with nature through an ethic of mutual care. On March 20, for example, youth from the Saugeen First Nation engaged in a 19-kilometre water walk to seek healing for their community from the effects of a serious opioid crisis. In this case, the youth did not seek to attain the health benefits of nature as consumers of a separate and external nature, but petitioned and prayed for healing through an act of stewardship and caretaking which recognized and respected the life-giving power of water that resides inside us all. A practical application of this ethic can be seen in growing instances of outdoor recreationists taking initiative to pick up litter along shorelines and hiking trails.
As we emerge from the pandemic, a renewed emphasis and acknowledgment of the reciprocal relationship between human and non-human well-being could help us foster both healthy people and healthy environments for future generations.