Backcountry advocates doubtful of B.C. Liberals support for B.C. Parks

While the B.C. Liberals have been busy making announcements around new funds, park rangers and campsites, backcountry advocates are questioning whether it's enough to keep the system healthy and able to meet a surge in demand.

Province has made moves to increase campsites, rangers and funding, but are they enough as visits skyrocket?

Despite a number of government initiatives to support B.C. Parks, advocates are not convinced it will be enough to keep the system robust as visits dramatically increase. (BC Parks/Facebook)

While the B.C. Liberals have been busy making announcements about new funds, park rangers and campsites, backcountry advocates are questioning whether it's enough to keep B.C. Parks healthy and able to meet a surge in demand.

Numbers released as part of the government's latest budget show a huge increase in visits when comparing the past two seasons.

During 2015/2016, there was nearly 24 million visits to B.C. parks — a record — and a jump of 2.4 million compared to the season before:

  • 2015/2016 23.8 million
  • 2014/2015 21.4 million
  • 2013/2014 21.3 million

"That was significantly more than they had forecast and it puts an incredible amount of strain on the parks system," said blogger and B.C. Parks advocate Steven Jones.

He's worried that the province is woefully under-estimating growth, which is pegged at an increase of 100,000 for this season and calculated, according to the Ministry of Environment, using three-year averages.

"It should be noted that not all B.C. Park visitors are campers," said the ministry in an email to CBC News. "In May 2011 parking fees were removed from all B.C. Parks thereby increasing daily visits."

In the spring of 2011, parking fees were waived at provincial parks. The Ministry of Environment says that has encouraged more visits. (Steve Lus/CBC)

The reasoning is no comfort to Jones and others like Dave Wharton, president of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C.

They're worried the government's plan won't make the park system robust enough to handle its increased popularity.

"Parking lots are crowded and overcrowded. We've had instances of unsafe parking along highways," said Wharton. "There doesn't seem to be an increase in the infrastructure that supports those backcountry and frontcountry experiences."

The province's plan is to "strengthen conservation in its world-renowned parks with a new investment of $35 million over the next three years," said Ministry of Environment officials.

That money will result in 25 more full-time park rangers, new programs to promote and protect the natural environment and preserve the backcountry.

So far the province says it's created 350 new campsites for 2017, the first phase of building 1,900 new ones, an investment of $22.9 million.

It's also created a $10 million fund called the B.C. Parks Foundation.

"The foundation will help generate private revenue, to be spent on promoting and enhancing the experience in B.C. Parks," said the ministry.

Jones is critical of the fund and has already complained that a partnership plan — speciality license plates sold through ICBC — isn't contributing the amount of funds the government said it would to B.C. Parks.

This is one of three new licence plates commemorating B.C. Parks. Part of the $50 fee for the plates goes towards the Park Enhancement Fund. (ICBC)

Wharton and the federation are asking B.C residents to advocate for more funding for B.C. Parks through a campaign.

In the meantime, he and Jones are also waiting for the 2015/2016 B.C. Parks annual report to see, more clearly how parks are holding up to all the increased visits.

The province has promised it to be published in the coming months although the season ended in March 2016.

"B.C. Parks has been focused on implementation of the futures strategy," said officials.

Wharton wants remind the government and its stakeholders of the huge responsibility in maintaining parks so that they remain the draw they have become.

"I think the danger is that the money that would be generated by people visiting our parks will be taken elsewhere because people just can't have the type of experience that they're looking for," he said.


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