Vancouver Sun


Bri­tish Columbians need to make parks an elec­tion is­sue, writes Mer­lin Black­well.

- Mer­lin Black­well is mayor of Clear­wa­ter and for­mer owner of Black­well Park Oper­a­tions Ltd., which ran Wells Gray Pro­vin­cial Park from 1989 to 2019, and other B.C. parks in the Cari­boo from 1982 to 1988. British Columbia · Gordon Campbell · Campbell Soup · New Democratic Party (Canada) · John Horgan · Wells Gray Provincial Park · Wells Gray · George Heyman · Bill Vander Zalm · Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

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.

 ??  ?? Mer­lin Black­well, the cur­rent mayor of Clear­wa­ter, was a self-de­scribed “park brat” who grew up work­ing in and around the B.C. Parks sys­tem and later be­came a pri­vate parks con­trac­tor. “I still have great hope for our pro­vin­cial parks,” he says.
Mer­lin Black­well, the cur­rent mayor of Clear­wa­ter, was a self-de­scribed “park brat” who grew up work­ing in and around the B.C. Parks sys­tem and later be­came a pri­vate parks con­trac­tor. “I still have great hope for our pro­vin­cial parks,” he says.

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