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Sow seeds now for the future of British Columbia’s parks

Joan Sawicki is a former land use consultant and former B.C. minister of environment, lands and parks, and a current volunteer with BC Parks.

Saturday marks another Parks Day across Canada. With the greatest ecological diversity and highest percentage of land base in protected status, as British Columbians, we have lots to celebrate.

But, all is not well. Recent media coverage about how few full-time park rangers we have and the overflows at popular campsites are but symptoms of a BC Parks agency that is perilously close to starvation.

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Seeds for this situation were sown in the 1990s when we proudly doubled the size of our protected areas but didn't entrench the capacity to manage them. This was exacerbated in the early 2000s by severe budget cuts and elimination of the "Parks" identity within the Ministry of Environment. It has been all downhill from there.

A few examples of current systemic issues: We have always had seasonal park rangers for periods when recreational use of our parks is highest. But now, that is virtually all we have and we lose many of them after only a few years. They love the work but they can't build a career out of a seasonal job.

BC Parks is constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul – juggling rangers within and between regions to deal with crisis. Too often, that means patrols, enforcement and trail maintenance cannot be done.

Nonetheless, some of our most dedicated and experienced park rangers go on to become area supervisors. Because most technical support staff positions have long since been eliminated, they find themselves trapped behind a desk, filling out referral forms, processing permits and filing – their field talents and experience underutilized. Eventually, they burn out or leave … and the cycle begins again.

Development pressures affecting both parks boundaries and activities within them are intense. In many cases, however, we don't know the ecological, recreational and heritage values we are losing because there are too few conservation specialists and park planners to write and implement management plans that would protect the values and reconcile the conflicts.

All government agencies have had to learn to do more with less. BC Parks has become more adept at this than most. But, as the more has multiplied, and the less has dwindled to almost nothing, the situation has become untenable.

I contribute dozens of volunteer hours to BC Parks every year. It is satisfying work. It is not without inner conflict, however, because I know the more help I give, the more it facilitates further cutbacks. While there is a role for volunteerism, to be blunt, BC Parks no longer has the capacity to organize such projects, let alone supervise them.

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As we get closer to next year's provincial election, debate over BC Parks will likely follow a predictable pattern. Government will cite all the dollars they have invested. The Opposition will promise more. Well-intentioned non-government organizations will pressure all politicians to say the words they want to hear.

British Columbians should be skeptical of all of this. While a few more park rangers may be essential nourishment for an agency that is starving, it comes nowhere close to reflecting, let alone responding to, the situation.

The current BC Parks mission statement is "to protect representative and special natural places for world class conservation, outdoor recreation, education and scientific study." According to the 2010 Auditor-General's report, BC Parks is failing to meet even its most basic responsibility to maintain ecological integrity. Like all previous studies on BC Parks, this report has largely fallen on deaf ears.

BC Parks is on the front line of some of our most complex challenges, including maintaining biodiversity in the face of climate change and implementing meaningful co-management partnerships with First Nations.

We cannot be appeased or distracted by a few Band-Aids. There are years of sustained commitment needed to rebuild a BC Parks agency with the structure, tools and resources to manage the complex tasks we have entrusted to it.

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