Meaghen McCord: B.C.’s parks have suffered from chronic underfunding

Opinion: Parks are increasingly important for the relief they offer us, yet they’re suffering from a lack of attention to their rotting bridges, overflowing parking lots, and packed campsites.

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Across B.C., amid record-breaking heat waves, people are looking for ways to escape the cities. We often turn to the forests, lakes and rivers near them for relief.

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Parks are an increasingly important piece of infrastructure in a warming world, not just for their protection of nature, but also for the relief they offer us — yet this vital infrastructure is suffering from a lack of attention to its rotting bridges, its overflowing parking lots, and its packed campsites.

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Provincial parks provide a safe and accessible place to beat the heat and unwind. From Alice Lake to the busy shores in Golden Ears provincial parks, the sheer number of us seeking that refuge is putting parks under severe stress, jeopardizing their ability to meet visitors’ needs, let alone the needs of the ecosystems within them.

We are still riding the momentum of the global gathering for nature and biodiversity at COP15, but B.C. still has a long way to go to meet its commitments. From here, it’s critical to make sure that wild spaces of all types play a role in nurturing communities through these crises.

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Provincial parks cover 14 million hectares (nearly 15 per cent of B.C.), but they have suffered from chronic underfunding and minimal staffing for many years. This has caused huge backlogs in the upkeep of critical infrastructure — the bridges, outhouses and even the trails that are so beloved by the people who visit them. This lack of funding has restricted the establishment of new parks, new trails, and new campsites. Meanwhile, visitation has steadily increased, with Lower Mainland parks seeing an approximately 30-per-cent increase over the last few years, putting existing infrastructure and nature under unsustainable pressure.

Consider the endless car lineups along highways from Porteau Cove to the well-known Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. This represents a mismatch between the number of people seeking to enjoy the outdoors and the parks system’s ability to welcome them.

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In the last five years, we have finally seen signs of hope for B.C.’s park system. The B.C. Parks budget now sits at a much-improved $70 million — after hovering around $30 million for 15 years — enough to address maintenance backlogs and upkeep of infrastructure, as well as a pair of $10-million endowments that will fund trails, parks and volunteers. But the funding still falls well short of the $100 million that park experts agree is needed to ensure parks support nature, wildlife, and people.

The B.C. parks system has been starved for resources for decades. Stable, adequate funding and staffing levels are desperately needed to work with First Nations to represent their history and vision, support volunteers, and expand and maintain networks of trails and recreation infrastructure. Now, the system is left to catch up while facing unrelenting demand.

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All of this also comes at a time of unprecedented momentum to protect lands and waters to address the global extinction crisis.

Across the globe, governments have committed to addressing habitat loss and the decline of wildlife. They have committed to restructuring subsidies that aid in the destruction of nature, such as fossil fuel subsidies, and to work instead toward restoring and conserving nature.

Here in Canada’s most biodiverse province, all aspects of the parks and recreation system have been in need of significant investment to allow for ecologically friendly, equitable and safe access to nature. Transportation is just the start, but options for public transit to and from parks would alleviate much of the strain and the lack of accessibility. Similarly, staffing by seasoned park rangers and Indigenous Guardians to be the eyes and ears on the ground is needed to respond and adapt to changing trends in visitors and wildlife alike. Not only will this funding support people getting outside to beat the heat in summer months, it will also support B.C.’s commitment to advancing biodiversity conservation by protecting 30 per cent of lands and waters in partnership with First Nations by 2030.

As anxieties related to climate disasters and rapid species loss wear on all of us, hope can still be found in the resilience of nature and the people speaking up for it. Joan Baez famously said that, “Action is the antidote to despair.” British Columbians deserve to see action taken on our behalf by elected leaders to create and support the essential infrastructure that parks provide. It’s a gift not just to nature itself but to all of us who depend on it.

Meaghen McCord is executive-director, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, British Columbia.

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