If you haven’t already, read ‘Why I Quit My Dream Job’ to hear a first-hand account of some of the problems detailed in the piece below.
words:: Nikkey Dawn
The first BC park was created in 1911, a product of the colonial mindset embedded in the province’s history—in order for land to be protected from industry it needed to be assigned a purpose. Parks then, were given three often competing roles: conservation, recreation, and tourism. Over the past century, a provincial identity has emerged, one built on the idea of vast, untouched wilderness available for the enjoyment of all. Anyone who’s been anywhere near Joffre Lakes Provincial Park in the past half decade, however, can attest that the cheese might be sliding off the cracker.
Of all provinces, BC places dead last on expenditure at just $2.80 per park hectare. Comparatively, Alberta spends $30/hectare.
With the sixth largest park system in the world, BC boasts 14.26 per cent of its total area as protected parkland. But those bragging rights diminish quickly when the discussion turns to funding. Of all provinces, BC places dead last on expenditure at just $2.80 per park hectare (comparatively, Alberta spends $30/hectare).
To remain accessible, BC Parks do not charge user fees, which makes them more dependent on government funding than national parks or provincial parks in other provinces. The public, advocacy groups, park stakeholders and politicians (including the in-power federal party) have all called for BC Parks to receive a higher annual budget, yet it has not materialized. Despite ever-increasing park use, this year saw a drop from the previous year’s $41.7 million to $40.6 million. Adjusted for inflation, BC currently spends less now on our parks than in the mid-1980s, despite huge increases in usage. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) estimates BC Parks needs at least $60 million to operate, while other advocacy groups put the number between $90-100 million to properly manage and protect BC’s parkland.
In a 2011 report, BC’s auditor general found, “[BC is] not successfully meeting the goal to conserve the ecological integrity in British Columbia’s parks and protected areas.” Three main park issues have emerged: overcrowded, under-maintained, and unmanaged.
The other elephant in the room is that much of BC’s parkland was hunting and gathering grounds to First Nations communities across BC, who were removed from the land—initially by the Indian Act or later the Expropriation Act—and prevented from continuing their traditional cultural practices/connections on the land despite the fact that Indigenous peoples had been managing natural resources across the province since the last Ice Age.
Removing any species, but especially one as influential as human, changes the ecology of an area. In BC’s Okanagan region, the Kou-Skelowh firekeepers would strategically burn areas to promote the growth of favourable plants and to prevent bigger fires from breaking out. Without this, vegetation fuel grew and the area became more susceptible to large forest fires.
There is a common idea that having people living within parklands can destroy the aesthetic and hinder tourism, but many parks around the world, such as Makalu Barun in Nepal and Cairngorms in Scotland (which sees 1.77 million visitors annually) have shown this is not always the case.
Closer to home, lobbying for new provincial parks was considered a top defense against clear-cut logging in the 1980s. When Meares Island came under threat by logging company McMillan Bloedel, the Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht Nations wanted to protect the island’s forests without severing their ability to manage the land. So in 1984, they established BC’s first tribal park to uphold and revitalize traditional teachings while finding cultural ways to share the land and traditions with visitors.
Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) have a more modern approach to management rooted in a deep, historical understanding of stewardship. But they also face challenges such as limited resources, limited positive media coverage, and a lack of support or recognition from the provincial or federal government. Recognizing IPCAs would be a step forward in fulfilling Canada’s pledge to support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2004, Canadian Parliament passed legislation for 86 hectares from the Pacific Rim Reserve to be returned to the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations. Parks have the potential to be a powerful part of reconciliation.
Here in the Coast Mountains, Joffre Lakes—one of the province’s most visited (and most Instagrammed) parks—is providing an opportunity to learn and adapt. Relevant branches of the provincial government have teamed with the Lil’wat Nation and the N’Quatqua Nation to create a new Visitor Use Management Plan. Tourism Whistler chose to stop promoting the park when the threat of overcrowding became apparent and has created marketing guidelines that block any user-generated content featuring park users off trail, camping illegally or otherwise harming the environment. Destination BC says they never promote a park without BC Parks involvement.
“This isn’t politics, it’s community,” said Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy in an interview with Whistler’s Pique Newsmagazine about Joffre Lakes. “We recognize there is a problem so let’s develop strategies that work for everybody—and that means everyone needs to participate and contribute.”
The problem is, not everyone is, or is able. Currently, 30 per cent of BC Parks are without management plans at all, making them vulnerable to misuse and illegal activity such as waste dumping and environmental degradation by park users who have no facilities or designated areas to recreate. Under-maintained parks face the same challenges, because even if they do have a trail system and camping areas, there is little or no staff to enforce the rules, nor signage to educate.
But, there is hope. The BC Parks Foundation was created in 2018 with a $5 million injection from the provincial government and the goal of ensuring “British Columbia will have the best parks system in the world, supported by an active, diverse and innovative local and international community.” The foundation picks projects based on the needs of BC Parks, the interests of charitable donors and proven strategies used by other park foundations (largely in the US). The foundation is also set up to help with public engagement and education, managing volunteers, bringing stakeholders together to work on solutions, and planning for climate crisis-related threats.
BC’s parks support life—from cleaning the air to providing jobs. Perhaps the recent temporary COVID-19 closures will be the catalyst to make park users reassess how much they take from these wild places compared to how much they give. A public commitment to stewardship, support for Indigenous rights and management and a government willingness to innovate and pivot in the face of climate change could see BC home to the best parks system in the world. —ML