FOR THE LOVE OF PARKS, LET'S SHOW OUR SUPPORT
British Columbians need to make parks an election issue, writes Merlin Blackwell.
I grew up in B.C. parks. I was one of a very select group of kids who could be called “park brats,” the children of park operators who were dragged to work with our parents.
If you didn't get taken to work, you were a “park orphan” or, in the case of spouses, a “park widow.” The job of a park contractor or park facility operator was hard on relationships if all family members weren't involved, so it was generally inevitable that you would be roped into painting outhouses or collecting garbage with mom or dad.
Most park brats would eventually get paid for their work and some, like me, would eventually go on to run the companies that look after B.C.'s provincial parks to this day.
So here's the thing that most park visitors don't know: Better than 98 per cent of the people you meet in a B.C. provincial park will be employees of a private company. If they are wearing a park facility operator uniform, they do not work for government, they work for a “mom and pop” company like I used to own. It's been this way for nearly 40 years.
I have been a front-line witness to the history, and decline, of our B.C. Parks system during all that time. I remember the first jobs being taken from rangers and given to contractors. I remember taking over the campground duties in Wells Gray Provincial Park as a 19-year-old, a job that had been done the year before by a union government employee. I remember sharing cabins with the remaining rangers, who saw the writing on the wall. Their jobs would be taken over by us just a few years later.
When I started in Wells Gray in 1989, there were about 25 B.C. Parks staff, and five of us park facility operator staff. Just 14 years later, by 2003, there were 18 of us — and not a single government park ranger.
Things got darker in the years to follow as then-premier Gordon Campbell's Liberals axed funding for the naturalist programs in B.C. Parks, among other things. Many park operators and “Friends of” societies couldn't bear that, so we kept naturalist programs going for years, funded out of our own pockets. Today, if you attend a B.C. Parks naturalist program, odds are it is funded out of the earnings of a park operator. When the Christy Clark Liberals came into power, we operators hoped programs would be restored, but it was not to be. Many of us gave up trying to save them.
Park operators would meet once a year to share wisdom and meet with government. We would commiserate about how little funding there was for park infrastructure, how everything was getting old and rotten. In 2003, the government told us to “do more with less” as we signed larger contracts for the first time that supposedly gave us 10 years of job security. Then in 2008 when the first big round of cuts came, they told us to do “less with less.” We cut things like trail maintenance and road grading, with the promise they would be restored after the recession. That never happened.
By 2012, about 50 per cent of the companies that had started 11-year contracts in 2003 had gone bankrupt, given up or had their contracts stripped. Most were good companies that started as family companies like my own, but had been cut too thin or become too stressed working on such thin margins. By this time, I had bought out my family and was operating Wells Gray Park myself. No one wanted to do it anymore. I had hope that the government might change under the NDP, so I held on until Premier John Horgan came to power.
Nothing changed under the NDP. Not only was there no mention of B.C. Parks in the mandate letter to Environment Minister George Heyman, there has been no meaningful increase in B.C. Parks funding since the NDP came to power — and no obvious change in management style or policy within the ministry. I made the decision to exit, in early 2019.
This is not about any personal political agenda. I am non-partisan in my dislike of what every political party has done to B.C. Parks since the Socreds under Bill Vander Zalm.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, a charity dedicated to protecting public lands, recently stated that B.C. Parks funding lags behind national park funding at rate of $20 to $1, that B.C. Parks need a $60-million increase in funding just to get back on track. As one who has lived through the decline of the B.C. Parks system, my guess is that B.C. Parks needs much more than that. When successive governments began increasing the percentage of B.C. land designated as parks or protected areas, those governments never meaningfully increased funding to deal with that increased responsibility. With the need to improve water systems and other core infrastructure, you likely could double that $60 million figure.
Despite all this, I still have great hope for our provincial parks, and it's because of the renewed love affair that the people of B.C. have had with these amazing places
We need to respect our B.C. parks by funding them properly.
during the COVID-19 pandemic. British Columbians are loving their parks like never before. Usage has been so overwhelming that, in some cases, parks have had to be closed altogether. We need to respect our B.C. parks by funding them properly.
My former park operator friends say this has been a stressful time for them, but they are so grateful for the love that people have shown for our provincial parks. My hope is that British Columbians continue this love affair, that they keep it going by joining campaigns like those run by CPAWS, and that they make parks an issue during this election.