Op-ed by Rob Fleming: B.C. Liberal cuts nothing to celebrate on B.C. Parks centenary

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It’s been 100 years since Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island became British Columbia’s first provincial park and marked the beginning of the development of our provinces world class parks system.

The centenary of B.C. Parks should be cause for celebration and a source of great pride, but after a decade of B.C. Liberal cuts our parks are neglected – improperly staffed, poorly maintained and adrift without visionary planning to guide a bright and sustainable future.

While our province enjoys the highest percentage of land base protected in Canada and was recognized in the 1990’s as the first UN jurisdiction to preserve over 12 per cent of our land base, we now risk failing to properly conserve our parks and protected areas for future generations. Most of the problems are related to underfunding and stalled parks planning. We simply don’t have enough scientists, conservation officers and park rangers on the ground doing work that needs to be done. Today, Alberta invests seven times more per capita in their parks system than B.C. does.

Ten years ago, one of the first acts of the new B.C. Liberal government was to abolish the environment ministry altogether. After folding parks into the newly created Ministry of Water, Land and Air, hundreds of scientists, conservation officers and other staff critical to maintaining and protecting our parks were sacked. By 2004, the B.C. Liberals had eliminated almost 400 of these jobs, and had cut the ministry workforce by 30 per cent. The highly successful Park Extension Program, which coordinated park volunteers, was disbanded.

Our premier-designate, Christy Clark was deputy-premier when decisions were made to fire public servants that study, manage and protect our parks. She was a senior minister when the B.C. Liberal government changed the Parks and Protected Areas Statutes Act to downgrade measures to protect ecological integrity and allow oil and gas exploration and development within park boundaries.

Although Ms. Clark in 2011 now promises to “eliminate fees in provincial parks to encourage families to explore B.C. parks,” she was at the cabinet table when the B.C. Liberal government priced out families from our parks with new and increased user fees. High user fees are this government’s legacy for B.C. Parks, a legacy measured the declining number of annual visitors to our parks.

The funding cuts she supported started a decade of neglect at a time when the economy was growing. These deep cuts are today manifested in the dozens of park closures and reduced seasons, countless closed trails, decaying infrastructure, and the elimination of provincial park interpretive services for our children and grandchildren to explore and appreciate nature.

It speaks volumes that this government now spends as much on political spin and PR through its Public Affairs Bureau than it does on maintaining our entire 14 million hectares of provincial parks and protected areas. Especially when B.C.’s Auditor General reports that fewer than half of all Class A parks and only one-quarter of all ecological reserves have either a management plan or management direction statement.

Our parks are an irreplaceable treasure of North America’s biodiversity and an economic boon to every region of our province. Every dollar we invest on our parks has a multiplier effect of tenfold, creating and sustaining jobs and opportunities in parts of our province that need them badly.

There are many areas of our province where protection of habitat and species at risk of extinction is inadequate. Enacting species at risk legislation is a necessary step towards protecting our parks forever. We should also consider adding parks designation to in ecologically significant areas like Flathead Valley, South Okanagan and the threatened coastal douglas fir ecosystems to meet our goal of protecting each one of the ecosystems found in our ecologically rich province.

As we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of our park system, we should reflect on how protecting our environment pays social, economic and cultural dividends. As our land base adapts to a changing climate, British Columbia cannot continue to underfund our parks if we aspire to have the best parks system in North America for the next century.

Rob Fleming, New Democrat environment critic

This op-ed originally appeared in The Georgia Straight on March 3, 2011.