British Columbia

Recreation groups call on B.C. Parks to scrap day-pass system ahead of summer 2021

Recreation groups say by restricting capacity in six of B.C.'s most popular provincial parks, the system forced hikers to explore more remote trails which led to a spike in calls to search and rescue teams.

Online survey asking for feedback on the passes introduced for 6 of the province's most popular parks

People enjoy the first day of the reopening of Golden Ears Provincial Park in Maple Ridge, British Columbia on Thursday, May 14, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Recreation groups are calling on B.C. Parks to cancel the controversial day pass reservation system it used last year. 

The groups say by restricting capacity in six of B.C.'s most popular provincial parks, the system forced hikers to explore more remote trails which led to a spike in calls to search and rescue teams.

"We saw a surge in [search and rescue] calls and a lot of people in areas that they were not equipped to be in or sufficiently trained because they have been displaced by the parks pass system," explained Chris Ludwig, the president of the B.C. Mountaineering Club.

Last July, B.C. Parks introduced a pilot project to restrict capacity in the following provincial parks: Golden Ears, Cypress, Mount Seymour, Stawamus Chief, Garibaldi and Mount Robson.

Last summer, day passes for popular parks, such as Golden Ears and Stawamus Chief, were completely sold out within minutes. (Discover Camping)

The system required people to log into B.C. Parks at 6 a.m. to reserve a free day-use pass for the park they wanted to visit.

Access to easy trails restricted

Critics said the day-of booking system didn't work for hikers who would already be on the road to their destination early in the morning or for those hoping to enjoy the sunrise from the peak of a mountain.

Along with the B.C. Mountaineering Club, outdoors associations like the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C. and Friends of Garibaldi Park are calling on BC Parks to cancel the day pass system as it existed last year.

"We don't think there should be a day-pass system at all," said Tom Ireland of Friends of Garibaldi Park.

"We think it is extremely concerning the prospect of limiting access to our provincial parks, especially in the situation we're in now where we're facing this pandemic, where one of the things that people have been advised to do is to get outside for the sake of their physical and mental health." 

The Ministry of Environment, which is responsible for B.C. Parks, said in a statement that the free day pass was an effective tool to manage growing demand. It pointed to other jurisdictions that use day-use capacities such as Parks Canada and the U.S National Park Service.

The view from the Stawamus Chief near Squamish, B.C. (SimonaKoz / Shutterstock)

Jay MacArthur, the. president of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C., says B.C. Parks' rationale of reducing capacity to limit transmission of COVID-19 no longer makes as much sense over a year into the pandemic

"We know more about COVID and it doesn't affect people in the outdoors too much," he said. "So really, we'd rather the government spend money on fixing up the trail."

Restrictions pushing hikers to less maintained trails, groups say

Building and maintaining more trails is something MacArthur, Ireland and Ludwig all agree on.

"We have this huge need [for recreation], this huge surge in the number of users. And yet we have no new trails and no money going into the trails system," Ludwig said. "We need more access points, more trails, disperse the users, give more opportunity."

B.C. Parks launched a survey in early April asking people for feedback on the day pass system. The agency says the main goal of the program was "to help ensure the protection of natural and cultural values, ecological integrity and visitor experience in parks."

But Ludwig says the capacity restrictions on popular parks meant that other trails not maintained by the province suffered from overuse.

"The trails that are being capped are the ones that actually can handle higher capacity, like Elfin Lakes and Garibaldi Lake [...] These trails are built to handle larger numbers and are more beginner friendly," he said. "We're displacing those people to trails that don't have boardwalks, don't have great trailheads, and it's trashing the environment."

The Elfin Lakes Trail in Garibaldi Provincial Park near Squamish, B.C. (Shutterstock / CDeWeger)

Ludwig says, for example, the number of visitors to Watersprite Lake, which is maintained by BCMC volunteers, doubled to 20,000 in 2020.

Along with the survey, park users are invited to share their views on parking, trails and demand for the outdoors at a virtual town hall with North Vancouver – Seymour MLA Susie Chant on May 5.

She says feedback from her constituents has been split, but that a new $83 million investment in BC Parks over the next three years is a good sign.

"Some of that money is indeed going to go toward trail maintenance and upkeep and planning and providing," she said. "However, the money also needs to go to people, to park rangers to be able to be out and and managing those trails."