Cool mountain air and the deep green stillness of the forest overwhelms me as I step out of the car and cross the parking lot of a local provincial park. I was thinking how eternally lucky we are to have the freedom of our parks when a white company pickup truck came roaring up.
"Have you got a pass?" a tall youth demanded slamming the door behind him.
"I just got out of the car to stretch my legs," I answered, amused by the size of this guy.
"Doesnt matter," the youth snapped, plunging a hand into his jacket pocket. "Youre lucky I havent got my ticket book otherwise youd be getting an $83 fine."
Knowing it was pointless to argue, I got into my car resigned to buying a parking pass before visiting the park again. But as I drove away, I couldnt help feeling something had been lost in having to pay a parking fee to use a provincial park. Curious to know how other people felt about the pay-for-parking policy initiated by the British Columbia government in May this year, I set out to visit several popular provincial parks in the Sea to Sky corridor.
At Porteau Provincial Park in Howe Sound north of Horseshoe Bay campers, Volkswagen vans and cars are already starting to fill the parking lot on what promises to be a busy Labour Day Monday. The marine park is a popular place for divers. There are several submerged shipwrecks off shore and the waters are rich in cod, rockfish and sea anemones. Andrew and his daughter Monika visit Porteau Cove five or six times a year to go diving.
"Its easy access to the water," Andrew says, watching Monika walk into the calm water in her wet suit and immerse herself up to her shoulders for insulation against the cold before going for a dive. "I would like to teach my daughter to dive in a safe place."
But, Andrew is not happy about having to pay $5 to park his vehicle.
"I think its stiff," he remarks. "B.C. is a very rich province. I lost my job and the one place they look for money is in peoples pockets."
Across the lot diving gear; flippers and scuba tanks sit on the tailgate of a pickup truck. More gear is laid out on the pavement beside a parked car where three women from Vancouver are getting ready to explore the marine park. The women like the amenities of Porteau but have mixed feelings about having to pay for parking.
"Its a lot," Angie Morelli says. "To drive all the way out here and have to pay "
"Collectively, if its to maintain parks, I guess Im in favour of that," her friend, Quentina Siah says.
Beyond the parking lot and down a row of picnic tables near the beach, Keith Kilps is setting up his stove. Kilps stopped at Porteau on his way down from Birkenhead Provincial Park to cook himself a meal.
"I think it sucks," Kilps, who paid a dollar to park for an hour says. "That pay box over there is broken. I had to walk back to the other box. Its a money grab."
By mid morning theres already a lineup of vehicles trying to get into Shannon Falls Provincial Park on the Sea to Sky Highway just south of Squamish. The spectacular waterfall and boulder outcroppings attract international visitors, day users and climbers, and most of the picnic tables are already taken. Part of the message being delivered by an employee directing traffic into the parking lot is that because the ticket machine is broken parking for less than three hours is free. Anything over three hours will cost you $3.
"I think we need to support parks," says Chaim Salermon, standing near his vehicle loaded down with camping gear from a holiday up north. "But parking is a problem because you must have a bag of coins, because thats all the machine will accept."
At Alice Lake Provincial Park, a popular destination for many people living in the Squamish region, a Volkswagen convertible pulls up beside me and two young women jump out. One woman goes directly towards the ticket box to purchase a day ticket for $5. The other girl stands by the car with her arms crossed watching her friend. I ask her how she feels about having to pay money the minute they get out of their car.
"I dont like it," she says, turning sharply towards me.
Down at the lake where people are setting up picnic tables for Labour Day the feelings against having to pay for parking are even stronger. Jennifer McCrath and her family came all the way from Langley. They heard about Alice Lake from friends. I ask her if having to pay for parking affects a young family. She tells me that is exactly what they were talking about before I came up.
"A toll to use what is our God-given right!" McCrath exclaims spreading her arms.
But if God made the parks for the people, shes running a little short of cash to maintain them.
Ian Pepper, section head for parks and protected areas in the Lower Mainland region, says that pay-for-parking was introduced to British Columbias provincial parks to increase the revenue base.
"Were running at a deficit trying to operate these parks right now," Pepper says. "What were trying to do is get them closer and closer to operating and covering their own costs. Once we get to that point then theres going to be additional funding that can go towards enhancements, repairs and upgrades and general services, like cutting lawns."
Pepper believes that the large majority of people are okay with paying for parking.
"I mean they would prefer not to but theres no really angry outbursts about it," he says. "Its being accepted for the large part and were getting fairly decent compliance."
There has been a backlash to pay parking where people have to pay $3 to step out of their car and go for a short walk around Murin Lake Provincial Park just up the highway from Britannia Beach. B.C. Parks has reacted by making a change to the policy. Now there is a short term parking option.
"For a walk around Murin Lake that takes 20 minutes to half an hour, or a walk around Alice Lake you now only have to pay $1," Pepper reports.
But having to pay for parking at all doesnt sit well with several young families I speak to this morning, for whom visiting a park is about all they can afford. One family hardly had time to talk, wanting to see as much of Shannon Falls as possible before time ran out.
Driving up Howe Sound and continuing north of Squamish one cant help noticing how dry everything looks. The grass growing along the side of the highway is the colour of bleached straw. Even the evergreen trees look parched. Further up the Sea to Sky Highway a sign at the trailhead in Garibaldi Provincial Park warns hikers and campers that the number of open day use trails and campgrounds is restricted and that an evacuation alert may be sounded at any time because of the extreme fire hazard. But the parking lot is still half full. A group of four campers sorts out their gear after spending three days in the park. One of the campers would like to see general parks revenue go towards parks, rather than instituting a new park user fee. His friend on the other hand doesnt think a parking fee should be considered unusual.
"I was angry," Jill Koehler says, walking up and joining the conversation. Koehler is a hiker and a strong supporter of wilderness values. "I havent heard anything. What I resent is that it doesnt seem to have been thought through."
Thats a common sentiment. At least one Parks official has said campers have to pay so why shouldnt anyone who parks in a provincial park have to pay?
The sound of rushing water fills the air like leaves rustling in the wind at the entrance to Brandywine Provincial Park south of Whistler. Shade trees near the lookout platform by the falls are a welcome respite on a hot afternoon for Bob and Heather Bradley from Clear Valley, south Australia. As visitors seeing their son who has lived and worked in Whistler for five years the Bradleys dont believe they should have to pay to park at Brandywine.
"If youre a tourist youre probably paying enough taxes already," says Bob Bradley. "They should be providing these attractions without having to pay."
Pepper acknowledges that response has been mixed to the program of pay parking in parks.
"Weve tried to do a pretty decent job of letting people know that the money is being retained by B.C. Parks and can be carried over in the parks system to be put back into the parks system," he explains. "Its not money that goes back into general revenue."
Wording right on the ticket boxes explains this and there was media exposure earlier this year before the policy was implemented. Revenue from pay parking will go into off setting costs within the parks system. Household surveys indicated that most people are thrilled to have a world-class parks system even though the people surveyed are not necessarily park users.
"They have been no problem with their tax money going towards the protection of the natural resources but they have often said that the people who recreate and use the facilities should pay their share of operating the facilities," Pepper says.
Along with the recommendations of the Stewardship Panel and household surveys, Pepper believes pay parking for day users was a fair way to pay for park services.
"You cant afford to do it for nothing anymore," he says.
For years campers have been the only users who have paid directly to use the parks.
"Was that really fair?" Pepper asks. "There was a building in a parking lot at Porteau that was primarily put in for divers. So heres one segment of the recreation facility thats had all these facilities developed specifically for them that theyre expecting to get for free."
Campgrounds and the day use areas have been operated under contracts for 20 years.
"But thats at a cost," Pepper continues. "And there are not very many parks in the system that actually generate more revenue than it costs to operate them. Parking fees help offset the costs of operating parks."
There has been a growing trend in B.C. and other jurisdictions towards user pay.
"It was probably an opportune time to start thinking in terms of day users helping to support the costs of operating the parks," Pepper says.
There are nearly 1,000 provincial parks in British Columbia. Ten of these parks are in the Sea to Sky corridor, between Cypress and Brandywine Provincial Parks. Pay parking is in effect in all road-accessible parks as far as Brandywine Provincial Park but is not yet in effect at Nairn Falls Provincial Park north of Whistler.
"There are actually 28 locations at this time where we are charging," Pepper says.
One of the recommendations of the Recreation Stewardship panel appointed in May was that a special purpose account be established to receive existing and new user fee revenue. Personnel are currently being recommended to sit on a board of directors of the trust, which will advise B.C. Parks on allocating funds.
"I do know that that account is being set up for donations or bequests or corporate donations," Pepper says.
While the process of directing revenues from parking into the parks system kicks in, direct benefits from this revenue might be difficult to notice at first. The intention of pay parking is to cover off as much of the parks systems operating deficit as possible. But the money coming in may not be as much as B.C. Parks had anticipated. Not everyone is convinced they should have to pay to park in the parks.
None of the revenue from parking fees will go towards offsetting the costs to fly a lost hiker or boarder out of the backcountry with a helicopter.
"Its not within our budget," Pepper says. "Thats under the Provincial Emergency Program."
For now the high costs of backcountry rescues will continue to come out of general revenue from the provincial government.
Commercial operators do have the right to charge for parking in parks but havent charged so far.
"They dont really at this time want to start," Pepper says. "Parking in the downhill ski areas will actually end, as far as were concerned, at the end of October."
Pay parking in Cypress Provincial Park in West Vancouver has actually gone quite smoothly this summer. For the winter, when Cypress Bowl Recreations Ltd. resumes ski area operations, there may also be some sort of pay policy.
"We get a lot of hikers and lots of people have been picking up their annual passes," Mathew Broadbent, marketing manager for Cypress Bowl Recreations Ltd., says. "Obviously people arent thrilled to have to pay for something that was free but people seem to be accepting the change."
Broadbent is not 100 per cent sure how pay parking will go over in Cypress Park this winter.
"Logistically how it would work, whether theres a surcharge on a ticket probably what were looking at is some kind of pay parking similar to what we have here in the summer time but maybe sort of working around it differently."
One possibility is that certain parking lots that are closer to the ski lifts will have pay parking while other lots dont.
"Were not actually sure how thats going to pan out yet," Broadbent reiterates.
Administrating pay parking will be an additional task for CBRL but Broadbent doesnt think pay parking could cause a real tie-up in traffic with people having to stop and buy a ticket on a weekend or trying to get into one of the free lots.
"I dont think we see a huge inconvenience to customers to have to do that," he says.
"Hopefully customers feel theyre getting value for what theyre paying for and providing some additional funding to sort of return some of the resources that were being depleted," he says.
CBRL goes back to its winter operating permit in November.
"I expect that in October some time, we would have resolution on what the direction is with parking for the winter time," Broadbent says.
Pepper is optimistic about the evolution of our provincial parks and the role a policy such as parking fees can have in that evolution.
"If we get to a point where the costs of operating the parks at least the developed facilities because were not considering the backcountry areas and the parks that are set aside for conservation reasons because they are ecologically unique once they start to break even and are starting to produce revenues, those additional revenues, I would suspect, are whats intended to go into this trust account."
Reviews of pay parking in the Sea to Sky corridor appear to be mixed. People generally agree that parks need protection and that paying a fee is okay if this revenue is going towards a good purpose. But things would go a lot better for the provincial government if their personnel were a little clearer about where the revenues were going to be spent.
pics 1,2 Porteau Provincial Park is a popular destination for divers and day visitors who like the easy access to the water but not paying for parking.
pics 3,4 Visitors from all over the world flock to spectacular Shannon Falls Provincial Park.
pic 5 By mid morning on Labour Day most of the picnic tables and parking spots at Shannon Falls Provincial Park were already taken.
pic 6 Chaim Salermon stands by an out of order ticket box near the parking lot at Shannon Falls. "We need to support our parks," Salermon says.
pics 7,8 Boaters from Pemberton talk about the one that got away on a visit to Alice Lake Provincial park on Labour Day.
pics 9,10 Having to pay $5 to park for a day at a provincial park hits young families.
pics 11,12 Reaction to pay parking from hikers unloading after three days of camping in Garibaldi Provincial Park is mixed.
pics 13,14 Tourists from Australia believe park attractions should be free.