Private investment needed to make parks economically sustainable: minister
On July 29, the Valhalla Wilderness Society released documents they obtained from a source within the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection that confirmed the governments plans to privatize and develop provincial parks in B.C.
The documents also included a schedule for the removal of government funding, management and Parks Branch supervision of private contractors, with final implementation of the changes taking place by 2004.
The government did not comment on the release, but a spokesperson for the ministry did say that the Liberal government was unable to finance all the new parks created by the previous NDP government.
On Aug. 13, the Water, Land and Air Protection Minister Joyce Murray announced plans to ensure the sustainability of the provincial parks system "while creating new opportunities and providing the recreational service British Columbians expect."
Said the minister: "The previous government doubled the parks system, but failed to develop a long-term plan for funding and managing the expanded system. We need to act now to restore sound fiscal management so that our parks system is sustainable over the long term.
"British Columbians care deeply about their parks," she added. "This revitalization will allow us to maintain the park systems integrity and commitment to environmental protection while enhancing employment and economic opportunities, especially for rural communities and First Nations."
In May Murray appointed a recreation stewardship panel to study solutions for managing park, fish and wildlife recreation. The panel then consulted with the public, First Nations and other stakeholders that recommended ways to maintain and increase recreation opportunities while protecting ecosystems and habitat.
To improve campground and day use recreation services, the minister has issued a Request for Qualifications from potential private and non-profit sector operators with ideas for parks. Applicants that are deemed qualified can then submit their ideas when the government begins a Request for Proposals process on Oct. 16.
According to the ministry, provincial campgrounds are currently managed by 110 private-sector opportunities. The revised system will give operators more responsibilities and opportunities, in accordance with the recommendations of the recreation stewardship panel.
According to Murray, "Private contractors have delivered high quality services in B.C. parks for over 20 years. Now that the parks system has doubled in size, it is prudent to review existing arrangements with park facility operators and seek new opportunities. We are looking for new partnerships and resources for the parks system so we can continue to deliver the high quality recreational experience British Columbians and tourists enjoy and expect."
After Dec. 2, ministry staff will evaluate the proposals they receive, including business plans and service delivery details for the operation of campgrounds and day use areas.
The ministry will then negotiate contracts for the proposals that meet with their approval. The goal is to have the process completed before the start of the 2003 camping season.
According to the Valhalla Wilderness Society, the move to more privatization undermines the public aspect of the parks system and places recreation and profit ahead of conservation and ecology.
"What is particularly galling is that nowhere not once in this new list of priorities for parks does the subject of ecological integrity come up," said Sarah Pugh, the director of the Valhalla Wilderness Society. "This is outrageous, in light of the fact that this should be the number one management principle for parks. Heavy impacts to park ecosystems, wildlife and visitor experience can be expected."
The government was not specific about what kinds of recreational activities might be allowed in parks, and does not mention motorized activities or tourism operations such as mountain biking or horseback riding.
The documents that were intercepted by Valhalla indicate that as of last April the Parks Branch will "Stop Doing" school programs, government funded interpretive programs, park brochures, providing free firewood, subsidizing seniors and the disabled, providing services in the highest subsidy parks, and providing personal information services the document says this "could be April / May as layoffs proceed."
By April 1, 2003, the ministry will stop ranger involvement in the "Frontcountry," subsidizing recreational use, and requiring park use permits for low risk commercial activities.
By April 1, 2004, the ministry will stop frontcountry facility maintenance or capital improvements, and providing direct supervision of frontcountry parks.
Among the recommended priorities for protected areas is the increase of commercial recreation and economic development opportunities as well as a new governance model and strategy for conservation and recreation, and the possible transfer of parks to the federal government and local administration.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society was on a retreat last week and was unable to comment on the ministry plans.