As the auditor-general has reported, B.C.’s parks and protected areas are in trouble.
They are a victim in part of the tremendous success over the past two decades in adding to the inventory of protected land in B.C. and the miserable failure of the province to match that expansion with the resources needed to oversee the new territory.
The environment and parks ministry budget is less today than it was in 1992, when the recently elected NDP government adopted the goal of protecting 12 per cent of the province.
That seemed like an immensely ambitious target at the time, but since then we have gone past it, with almost 14 per cent of B.C. now under some kind of protected status.
The auditor-general was looking somewhat narrowly at the province’s declared intention to preserve the “ecological integrity” of B.C.’s parks and protected areas. But whether the issue is providing facilities for park users or protecting wildlife, the limiting feature is the same.
Our magnificent, awe-inspiring natural environment is still primarily considered a cost by the government rather than a resource that should be exploited.
As a cost, parks can’t compete with other needs. Environment Minister Barry Penner, a former park ranger who still looks more comfortable in his hinterland gear than he does in a suit, says it would cost $355 million over 10 years to implement fully the auditor-general’s recommendations.
That’s only $35 million a year, about what the health care system devours in a day. But Penner has to compete, ranger’s cap in hand, for every dollar of his budget with the health pig that cannot be denied, with social services, with policing and education and every other equally worthwhile government initiative. Despite his clear enthusiasm for the job, he’s losing out as badly as any of his predecessors.
While comparisons over the years can be tricky because of accounting changes, the ministry of environment now gets about a third as much as it did in 1992 relative to the size of the provincial budget.
Unless our priorities change, and with an aging population that planners expect will increase the pressure on our health care system there doesn’t seem to be much hope of that, both the service level in our existing parks and our ability to protect natural values in all of the new territory will continue to suffer.
So the only hope in terms of finding significant new money for protecting and operating parks is start taking more seriously the notion that our relatively pristine wilderness should be considered an asset and not just a cost.
It’s worth remembering that some of our first national parks were saved for future generations, not just because of people like John Muir, who saw them as natural cathedrals worthy of preservation in their own right, but also by the efforts of visionary entrepreneurs, who saw in their attractions a way to make a buck.
It’s no accident that Canada’s first national parks were established along our railways. They saw the opportunity to develop resorts and create traffic. They invested in grand hotels and advertised across the country and abroad.
We have a broader view today of the intrinsic value of preserving wilderness and the extraordinarily range of habitat we are blessed with in British Columbia. Parks aren’t just for recreation and our spiritual nourishment, but necessary as our version of Noah’s ark, a refuge for natural diversity in a world increasingly dominated by the needs of one species.
But if we are going to maintain the natural cathedrals, we have to find a way to fill the collection plate. It’s no sin for us to exploit our natural assets if it allows us to protect and enhance them for future generations.
In the six years since the Liberal government passed legislation that would allow for some commercial development in parks, little has been done.
We may need to make a much wider call for proposals from entrepreneurs who are willing to invest in creating and promoting tourist attractions. This will be complicated by competing land claims, but first nations will have to be an integral part of any large developments.
And if environmentalists object to commercial development, let’s invite them to use their international contacts that have been so effective in the past. Let’s invite them to raise funds for the continuing care and maintenance of the territory that’s been preserved as a result of their earlier efforts.
We could sell naming rights to parks or facilities. Why not give people or corporations credit for adding to our ability to experience our natural wonders and preserving them for our children. Let’s set up webcams and create virtual tours with commercial sponsorship.
Dumb ideas? Maybe. But we need to start looking at alternatives. The old idea that taxpayers should step up again is losing ground and maybe it’s time to turn to the past for something new.
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