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  • Volume Eight, Number Seven: October 2003

    Parks Privatization Plan to Cost You More                                                    

    Carole Pearson

    British Columbia’s scenic beauty is reflected in its provincial motto: splendor sine occasu - splendor without diminishment. But as the Gordon Campbell Liberals implement changes to allow commercial activities to operate inside some provincial parks, environmental groups want the government to heed another motto: primum non nocere - first, do no harm.

    In January, Land, Water and Air Protection Minister Joyce Murray announced the introduction of pay parking in 28 provincial parks and increased campsite and license fees. The new parking fees forces park visitors to pay $3 to $5 a day in order to spend an afternoon at a lake or hike in the woods.

    But Anne Sherrod, chair of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, calls pay parking and higher fees “only a small part of the new initiative planned by the Liberals.” In an op-ed piece for the Victoria Times Colonist, Sherrod says, “[L]urking behind the new and increased fees is the fact that the park system will be operated as a business through the use of private contractors. As business revenue increases, tax support will be withdrawn.”

    In contrast with their NDP predecessors who created 346 new protected areas and park additions, the Liberals have taken a different approach to park management. Just two months after taking office, the BC Liberal government cut the budget of their Water, Land and Air Protection Ministry by 35 per cent and ended free interpretive programs in all provincial parks. Campgrounds used to provide free firewood but now campers have to pay $4 a bundle and last spring, BC Park staff was cut by 34 per cent.

    Now MWLAP officials say there is a $40 million backlog of facilities maintenance required within the park system and more money is needed. Murray explains, “Fee increases are needed to finance a park system that has doubled in size in the past decade to 11.35 million hectares while funding has steadily declined.”

    Yet, two years ago, a government-commissioned report stated, “For each dollar invested by government in protected areas, there were ten dollars in visitor expenditures.” Released in September 2001, The Economic Benefits of BC Parks by PriceWaterhouseCooper says total expenditures on BC parks were $533 million but over 90 per cent or $486 million of it was derived from visitor expenditures (1999 figures). Almost one-third of visitor expenditures come from out-of-province, making provincial parks “equivalent to a significant export industry.”

    “Where is this money going?” the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Park Watch wants to know. “Not into parks.”

    Apparently not satisfied with the PriceWaterhouseCooper report, last year the ministry established a five-person Recreation Stewardship Panel to investigate ways to have the private or non-profit sectors assume greater responsibility for park facility maintenance and the delivery of campground services.

    In its final report the Panel acknowledged, “There was a general reluctance to dramatically change how fish, wildlife and park recreation is managed now, or how it was managed in the past.” The Panel also conceded these areas “already pay for themselves several times over.” but “the general economic benefits or even general government tax do not flow directly to the Ministry.”

    The limited scope of the Panel precluded it from looking to re-allocate funds from elsewhere in the ministry or government as a whole. As it was instructed to produce options to create new revenue, the Panel complied and suggested the government “permit limited numbers of new, intensive, revenue-focused recreation operations.”  These could include kayak and canoe rentals, rock climbing instruction, nature appreciation tours and accommodation in yurts.

    Disregarding evidence indicating profits from provincial parks often show up elsewhere in government if not on MWLAP ledgers, the Ministry has identified at least 167 provincial parks with recreation “potential.” Whole parcels of parks are up for bid and because of scale of this project; larger business interests are stepping forward. The park operators will be required to fund maintenance and other operating expenses through their recreational revenues.

    Although the Liberals say the park eco-systems would be protected, the Valhalla Wilderness Society’s Sherrod disagrees. “Privatization means that profit-making will become the chief management goal. Profit making means all sorts of maximum-use methods such as marketing and infrastructure development to attract larger crowds. This,” she says, “will have a devastating effect on sensitive species and diminish natural and wilderness values until people won’t want to go there anymore.”


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