It was a brilliant day to be up on the Black Tusk Meadows Trail in Garibaldi Provincial Park, an area Al Jenkins reckons he's tramped along at least a hundred times over the last 40 years
"It cleared off and when I got up there it was one fantastic day," said Jenkins, 67, founder of Friends of Garibaldi Park. "Yes, there were 44 vehicles in the parking lot when I got up there but there were no bugs, no mosquitoes, no blackflies, no horseflies. Can you imagine that up there? Oh man, it was too much."
But this time, it wasn't a pleasant hike that took the former B.C. Parks area supervisor up to the alpine meadows. Jenkins spent more than two hours taking a couple of hundred photographs and video clips to catalogue where the trail is breaking up and needs fixing.
"At the moment the Black Tusk Meadows Trail is in deplorable condition," said Jenkins. "It requires a major renovation to bring it back, so that the meadows are no longer being damaged."
Jenkins is trying to raise $100,000 to repair the trail; money that he says should be coming from the B.C. government. He said that helicopters would cost $4,000-an-hour to do the kind of remedial work that's needed.
"This is just the beginning," he added. "There are other high-elevation trails that are also getting damaged."
Once touted as the "crown jewels" of B.C. tourism, our federal and provincial parks are now in peril due to funding cuts, says an environment watchdog. Parks Canada recently announced it was slashing 638 jobs, some of them scientists and planners, including 52 layoffs in B.C. It also reduced the number of shifts for another 1,690, including 51 B.C. federal parks workers. And in provincial parks, a shortage of cash has led to overflowing and rotting outhouses, broken down trails and run-down facilities, say critics. In fact, the miserly B.C. government parks system is the lowest funded in Canada, on a per-hectare basis, says the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). A 24-page CPAWS report was released earlier this summer under the headline, "Parks under threat."
It says the cut in Parks Canada scientists "will significantly reduce" research and monitoring which are vital when it comes to protecting national parks.
"They hired them because the parks were in a lot of trouble from an ecological perspective," said Chloe O'Loughlin, director of terrestrial conservation for the B.C. branch of CPAWS. "Species were becoming endangered, so they hired the scientists to figure out what to do. We have a huge responsibility, as climate changers, to protect as much as we can, so that the grizzly bear doesn't go the way of the woolly mammoth."
O'Loughlin describes Canada's national parks as the modern-day equivalent of Noah's ark, when it comes to protecting threatened and endangered species.
"We need the wild spaces so that nature can be nature and that happens mostly in the national parks," she told Pique. "It's the only thing that's going to enable our wildlife to survive."
The federal budget cut $29.2 million from Parks Canada. That meant between 25 and 30 per cent of the 150 ecosystem scientists got the chop, said CPAWS.
"The people who will lose their jobs include experts with years of experience in protecting park eco-systems and ensuring visitors appreciate their natural wonders," said the CPAWS report. "More than a quarter of the technical specialists who support science and management, including geographic information specialists, remote sensing specialists, monitoring technicians and human-wildlife conflict specialists will also be lost."
The job cuts threaten to "reverse a decade of progress in how our parks are managed," added the report, which also slammed the B.C. government.
When it comes to B.C.'s provincial parks, O'Loughlin said that while the number of parks has grown, the budget has stayed the same or been slashed.
"In 2010/11 the B.C. Parks operating budget was $31.7 million, the same as it was in the early 1970s, when the B.C. Parks system was one-fifth of its current size," said the report, which included a section devoted to B.C.'s provincial park system.
The report also hit out at a decision to build a "massive" glass-bottomed viewing platform along the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park. "The 'Glacier Discovery Walk' (similar to a controversial project that was built outside the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona) flies in the face of Canada's national park policy that limits recreational activities to those that require minimal infrastructure," said the report. And it blasted plans to allow large-scale summer use of Mount Norquay ski hill in Banff, which CPAWS said will put grizzly bears and other sensitive wildlife that use the area for summer habitat at risk. Other threats to federal parks included mining exploration in the Yukon's Tombstone Territorial Park and in the Dehcho watershed in Nahanni National Park Reserve, NWT.
"The good news is that they have increased the number of parks and the government deserves recognition for that," said O'Loughlin. "But budget cuts mean there's no enforcement and there are real safety issues. Water systems, outhouses and trail systems are breaking down and all the things that could be bringing in more and more visitors are falling apart."
O'Loughlin said the bad state of the provincial parks is reducing the number of tourists which, in turn, means less money in government coffers. A 2001 government report estimated that for every $1 the government spends on parks, it gets $10 in visitor spending and taxes, she said.
"The provincial parks system is the largest hotel in the province," added O'Loughlin. "There are millions of people that stay in the parks system and they provide many jobs, as well as being economic generators for rural communities."
CPAWS is calling on the B.C. government to boost the provincial parks budget to $100 million-per-year and to introduce a 50-year parks plan. B.C. is "pretty dreadful" when it comes to its parks system," agreed Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee.
"In one way we lead the nation in the number of hectares of protected area, with just over 14 per cent of the province," she said. "But when you actually look at the number of park rangers, look at park management plans, they're outdated or aren't even there."
The Wilderness Committee put in a Freedom of Information request last year that turned up evidence of a parks system in turmoil. It found that B.C. has only 10 full-time park rangers to cover over 1,000 parks and protected areas. The FOI results included email exchanges from the summer of 2009, showing rangers pleading for the most basic supplies and tales of outhouses that were rotting and overflowing. One email described the disgusting state of brimming pit toilets at Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park.
"At this point in time we cannot confirm that we have the funds available to deal with this issue," wrote Aaron Miller, section head of parks and protected areas in the Ministry of Environment. "As per my email earlier today, the budget allocated for the region is very slim."
The response was not encouraging for visitors enjoying the pristine area's marine park.
"Rick will try and 'tamp' down the 'piles' so we can get a couple of more weeks out of the toilets," said Dylan Eyers, area parks supervisor for the Sunshine Coast. "Hopefully by then we can see if there is some funds available to do the work. If the 'piles' pass the 'threshold' then we can go to plan B."
Barlee said the FOI also showed things like park rangers complaining they didn't have enough money to buy lug nuts to repair dangerous bridges which allow access with emergency vehicles.
"They didn't have enough money to replace toilet paper in outhouses or to replace the floorboards of a rotting outhouse," she added. "In some ways it's a comedy of errors, but at the same time it's sad that here we are, 101 years into our parks system, and we're starting to have a park system that's falling apart at the seams."
Due to the lack of park rangers, enforcement is also a problem, she added. One example she cited was the poaching of an 800-year-old red cedar that took place near the parking lot of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park last year.
"Poachers came in and cut 80 per cent through the tree," said Barlee. The ancient tree was so damaged that B.C. Parks staff had to cut it down for safety reasons. After they left, the brazen poachers returned to chop it up and haul away most of the wood.
"They felt they could do that over the course of several weeks because they knew there was no chance of them being caught," fumed Barlee. "What was ironic was that where that cedar was felled was close to a park ranger station which was, of course, empty."
When the B.C. Liberals started getting criticized in the media, said Barlee, they deputized 120 forest technicians as park rangers.
"The government waved a magic wand, because of the increasing bad press, and said, 'Voila, these guys are now park rangers.'"
The current $30-million operational budget is equivalent to what it was in the 1970s, when the B.C.Parks system was one-fifth the size, she said. "Even if you look to the 1990s, when the park system was half the size it is now, there was double the amount of people working in B.C. Parks," said Barlee. "There was around 370 positions and right now we have about 175 full time employees within B.C. Parks."
Another result is that some parks' management plans aren't in place, she added.
"And we're hearing about inappropriate recreation, about having ATV vehicles in alpine meadows that are very fragile," said Barlee. "You might have areas that need to have prescribed burns, areas where you need to watch out for invasive species, areas where you might be wanting to manage for endangered species."
Visits to provincial parks peaked in 1999 at 25 million visits, she said, but have now dwindled to less than 20 million annual visits.
"We haven't seen that decline in other park systems in Western Canada or the Western U.S.," added Barlee. "We've really had a decade of neglect for B.C.'s parks. We're starting to see trails in really bad shape."
Barlee agrees with O'Loughlin that a $100-million B.C. Parks operational budget is what it would take to bring it up to snuff.
"That's a pittance when compared to what they give the oil and gas industry in terms of write-offs," she said. "We don't want to see imaginary park rangers, we want to see real park rangers, we want interpretive programs and an operational budget that's not what it was in 1974, but what we need it to be in 2012."
Barlee said that the cuts at Parks Canada are a "warning sign," that things are going wrong there too, especially when they come in tandem with cuts to the Department of Fisheries and the "gutting" of the Fisheries Act.
"In that context, it's dark days," she said. "Canadians value their wilderness. We value our parks, our wildlife and our fish, and we want laws and regulations that reflect that value."
She said that losing roughly one-third of Parks Canada's eco-system science positions would eventually lessen the ecological integrity of Canada's parks system.
George Heyman, executive director of Sierra Club B.C. says that there's been a steady reduction in national and provincial parks staff.
"When that is coupled with the recent layoffs of federal government scientists, I think what we're looking at is a systemic problem in terms of maintaining and protecting our parks heritage," said Heyman.
He said that B.C.'s 10 park rangers compares to 27 who were working 10 years ago.
"And even that was a significant decrease from years past," he added. "We simply no longer appear in B.C. and, increasingly federally, to be able to protect and maintain the integrity of our parks system."
Up at Garibaldi, Jenkins is hoping he can make a difference. He spent seven years there as area supervisor in the 1970s and then moved to the Sunshine Coast as area supervisor for a further 23 years. The Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C. was told last year that it would cost $4.1 million to bring all the trails in Garibaldi up to a proper standard, added Jenkins.
He said one issue is that runners jump off the trail in order to get past hikers. There are insufficient boardwalks and there's a safety issue when the trail deteriorates from good to poor condition, said Jenkins.
"The trails in some sections are pretty much creek-beds and there are times when they're wet and muddy," he said. "This is why people are going to the side to tromp through the meadow because the trail is just not suitable for use."
Bridges are another issue.
"B.C. Parks do what they can but there are bridges that need to be replaced, certainly in Fitzsimmons Creek," added Jenkins. " It's not unusual for them to be washed out."
He said the Ring Creek Bridge on the way to Mamquam is being replaced thanks to "the very generous efforts of a private donor."
Jenkins gave credit to B.C. Parks for improvements at Elfin Lakes, where the original campground was in an area of sensitive bear habitat. "They've had a number of conflicts (between bears and humans) and they've found the money this year to rebuild and relocate that campground," he said.
Nonetheless, Jenkins says that the whole parks system is under-funded. "Parks were built around families and healthy lifestyles and getting people out in the outdoors," he added. "The benefits of that are amazing. There's too much effort in trying to make a dollar, rather than trying to look after the parks and keeping the people healthy and happy."
Garibaldi Provincial Park was one of the ones shown to be suffering from problems in 2009, in the Wilderness Committee's FOI search. One park ranger complained to her boss that the Garibaldi Lake area, which previously had four rangers, was down to one. She said that, normally, the lake's five shelters and six outhouses would be thoroughly cleaned at the start of each season "eradicating rodent droppings and excrement, mould and other health and safety hazards." Despite the area being full every weekend in the summer months, by July 10, 2009, only four shelters and four outhouses had received their proper "Spring clean," she said.
"It is quickly becoming apparent that there is more trash in the park than rangers to pick it up," wrote the disgruntled ranger. "This will result in future wildlife issues."
Another issue was that the Garibaldi Lake boat could not be used, as it took two rangers to operate it.
"The boat is there for pubic safety, (it was used in an incident last year to evacuate a hypothermic person stranded on one of the islands)," wrote the ranger.
Jenkins said that with regards to general outhouse maintenance, parks staff are "probably doing just about as good a job as they can with the amount of staffing available."
"They're certainly not up to the standard that they were 15 to 20 years ago when we had rangers that would regularly clean them, and clean them properly," he added.
However, Jenkins did say he was "pleasantly surprised" on a recent visit to the Cheakamus area of the park by the maintenance and number of outhouses there.
Mel Turner left B.C. Parks in 2003 after working there for almost 30 years and the North Vancouver resident is now secretary of the Elders Council for Parks in B.C. "The B.C. Parks system is struggling," he said. "The prime reason is that its budget has, in real terms, decreased in the past more than 15 years. It's also taken on added responsibilities because a whole series of new parks, ecological reserves and conservancies have been established, so it's had it from both ends."
He said the results could be seen in everything from picnic tables to trails and toilet buildings to campsites.
"The maintenance on that is about 50 per cent of the industry standard and, as a consequence, the facilities show it," said Turner.
Another problem is that the $30 million budget includes amortization of capital assets, he said.
"In 2001, the amortization value was less than $100,000 but now it is close to $8 million," added Turner. "That means there's actually $8 million less that goes into operations."
B.C. Parks is definitely a poor cousin when compared to other provinces, he added.
"In Ontario, the budget is close to $80 million and they have eight million hectares.
"In B.C. it's $30 million and B.C. has 14 million hectares of parkland."
He said the lack of resources has resulted in issues like trespass and improper visitor use. "Two years ago I was in the Skagit, which is quite renowned for pine mushrooms," said Turner. "There were 15 to 20 vehicles parked alongside the main road. They weren't hiking or camping, they were gathering pine mushrooms and that's illegal."
No rangers or area supervisors were around to provide enforcement, said Turner.
"You can't have a ranger behind every tree," he added. "But when you cut back the staff so significantly, you're basically accepting those levels of violations."
B.C. boasts seven national parks, with three of them on the West Coast.
They are the Gulf Islands National Park, Pacific Rim National Park near Tofino, Gwaii Haanas National Park in Haida Gwaii. The other four, located in the Kootenays, are Glacier National Park, Kootenay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring Radium Hot Springs, Mount Revelstoke National Park and Yoho National Park, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bill Henwood, another member of the Elder's Council, retired a year ago after 28 years working in the federal parks system, mainly in the marine area. He said the recent job cuts amount to an "overemphasis" on reductions in both science and planning.
"There's been a disproportionately high hit on science community," he said. "The cuts are jobs in both social and natural science, management planners and new park establishment planners. The Gulf Islands lost its planner and lost its scientist."
He said that all the planning positions and most of the scientists have been chopped in Parks Canada's Vancouver office.
"It's very disheartening," said Henwood, who lives in North Vancouver. "Even though Parks Canada took a 10 to 15 per cent hit, the Vancouver office sounds like it's going from about 60 people to 20."
He said that the Vancouver office developed a marine centre of expertise to look after marine conservation in the southern Strait of Georgia. "That was my baby for 10 years and virtually all the knowledge that was associated with that project is gone," he added. "The impact is huge in the ability of Parks Canada to do what it says it's going to do, and what the law says it needs to do, to maintain the ecological integrity of National Parks. A lot of our ecological monitoring capacity is gone.
"You could argue that our ability to uphold our mandate under the law has been severely compromised."
One of the reasons that scientists were cut, said Henwood, is because the average visitor to a national park won't see any sign of it.
"Staff members involved with the visitor experience side of the program haven't been nearly as hard hit as the science side," he added. "Our collective biggest fear is that the ecological health of parks is going to suffer significantly and no one will see it, because there's no one there to report on it. That's a real shame because Parks Canada did do a super job of staffing up and building that science capacity.
"In one very swift, deep cut, they've destroyed it."
He said that rare and endangered species are declining or disappearing while an influx of "exotic," non-native species is a big concern.
"That's a problem in every park," said Henwood. "Exotics are usually more aggressive than native species and they can have an incredible impact. Broom is a big problem in Pacific Rim, for example, and some dune grasses are non-native and they take over."
But Parks Canada's Bill Fisher, vice-president of operations for Western and Northern Canada, defended the job cuts.
He said most layoffs involve "positions we refer to as 'back office jobs' that don't directly impact visitors, or people at the field level." They include staffers in admin, clerical and executive positions, as well as managerial jobs, historians, biologists, archeologists, geologists, planners, equipment operators and park attendants, he said.
"We are implementing these reductions in ways that we feel will have the least impact on the quality of work we do on the ecosystems, in terms of restoration and conservation, and also in terms of making sure that the visitors have the best possible experience when they come to a national park or historic site," added Fisher.
He said that in B.C., the 52 laid-off staff and 51 reduced season positions include cuts in the Vancouver office and to field operations on Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and national parks in the Rockies.
"I think they have taken a rather negative view and ignored some of the work that has been done, so it is a rather negative perspective," he said of the CPAWS report.
"Take ecosystem restoration, where we have spent $90 million over five years on very specific projects," said Fisher. "We have programs under way right now to re-introduce species at risk into the sand dunes in Pacific Rim National Park, to remove Norway rats from islands up in Gwaii Haanas National Park, for restoration of salmon streams in Gwaii Haanas and Pacific Rim."
Fisher said Parks Canada also has an active species-at-risk program in the Gulf Islands National Park and is working in Kootenay National Park to reconnect aquatic systems that have been chopped up by culverts that were placed incorrectly under highways. "I think our record speaks for itself," added Fisher. "Parks Canada received the World Wildlife Fund's highest conservation achievement award for expanding Nahanni National Park six times."
Fisher disputed the claim that plans for a glass, viewing platform in Jasper National Park will cause any environmental damage, as it will be located beside a busy highway that's been in place for over half a century.
Meanwhile, a provincial campaign has been launched at www.savebcparks.ca. The link leads to the B.C. Government Employees Union website which shows several tongue-in-cheek videos depicting "Ranger Dave," as an endangered species, and having to catch a bus to work. "More than 40 park vehicles have been cancelled," reads the website. "Gasoline and travel budgets to patrol B.C. parks were slashed. In some cases, rangers have had to consider patrolling parks by Greyhound bus or taxi, for lack of a vehicle. Some parks areas have no budget for toilet paper."
The BCGEU's Byron Goerz, who's responsible for the union's parks component, says the state of B.C. Parks is no joke. "To be brutally honest, funding is absolutely dismal and has been for the last decade," he said. "Rangers are fighting over dollars just to put toilet paper in the outhouses."
Goerz said the Wilderness Committee's freedom of information results showed rangers having to take Greyhound buses to visit their parks because they couldn't afford to put gas in their vehicles.
"You will find trails that are closed for liability reasons or not properly kept up, bridges that are not there, picnic tables broken or vandalized, outhouses overflowing or dirty and with no toilet paper," Goerz added. "It's not the way to run one of the gems in our province. It's an embarrassment."
Two years ago, B.C. Auditor-General John Doyle conducted an audit of B.C.'s parks system.
His report said that the Ministry of Environment was not meeting its vision to "create the best park system in the world."
But B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake recently defended what he described as "the world-class B.C. Parks system."
He claimed that overall attendance was up, climbing from 19 million in 2006 and holding steady at close to 20 million between 2007 and 2011.
"A high and steady attendance level can be attributed to an annual visitor satisfaction rate of around 80 per cent," said Lake.
Lake said that this year there are 97 people working in park ranger positions in provincial parks, with 10 regular and 87 seasonal positions.
"This is the same number of seasonal park ranger positions as 2011/12 and 2010/11," he added.
Lake said a total of 164 B.C. Parks staff has park ranger status, including area supervisors and protected area section heads, and all can perform park ranger duties as authorized under the Park Act.
As well, park facility operators employ about 700 staff that deals with safety and security issues in B.C. parks.
He said B.C. Parks will also be looking at "sponsorship options" this year to support interpretive programming.
"B.C.'s parks and protected areas are the size of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI combined," added Lake. "While we simply cannot maintain every trail or attend to every blown-down tree, we are ensuring these very special places are accessible for British Columbians today and preserved for the park users of tomorrow.
"With more than 1,000 parks and protected areas, more than 14 per cent of British Columbia's total area is now protected — more than any other province in Canada."
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