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YOHO National Park BC Tourism BC/Albert Normandin
YOHO National Park BC Tourism BC/Albert Normandin

Mark Hume

A century ago, B.C. cared about its parks Add to ...

There was a time in British Columbia when political leaders took the protection of wilderness seriously and parks were high on the cabinet agenda.

In 1910, Premier Richard McBride assigned Lands Minister Price Ellison to investigate a possible site for B.C.'s first park. Mr. Ellison - and don't we wish we had a few like him in cabinet today - didn't fool around with briefing notes. Instead, he set off on an expedition that took him deep into the wilderness on Vancouver Island, near Campbell River.

In his book Island Alpine, author Phillip Stone writes that Mr. Ellison explored the mountainous region with a party of 23, taking three weeks to reach the summit of Crown Mountain, one of the dominant peaks.

"Ellison and his entourage chose Crown Mountain on a whim but fate played them and the new park a fine hand. Crown Mountain's position on the north side of the Elk Valley … gave the Minister one of the most spectacular alpine views on the island, doubtlessly sealing it in his mind that this was to be the area of the new park," writes Mr. Stone.

Mr. Ellison returned to Victoria, after a month afield, with such a stunning report that cabinet moved, in the spring of 1911, to set aside 250,000 hectares of wilderness, creating Strathcona Provincial Park.

There were plans for a railway branch line and two Canadian Pacific hotels like those that had helped make the Rocky Mountains international travel destinations. But the magnificent hotels proposed were derailed by the First World War and over the years the once-revered park, which was intended to rival Banff and Lake Louise, came in for a lot of abuse. Campbell River was dammed, mining tailings leached into Buttle Lake and logging was allowed in some places.

Sadly, B.C.'s first park is not the only one that has suffered at the hands of abusive or uninterested governments.

This year, as it celebrates its 100th anniversary, B.C.'s park system is so underfunded it is falling apart. Trails are overgrown. Wooden bridges rattle loose. Outhouses are closed because there is no one to maintain them. The park branch's interpretive programs have been scrapped, making B.C. one of only two jurisdictions in North America without nature programs, said Gwen Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee. The other is Mississippi.

And there are just 10 full-time park rangers - for all of B.C. - down 60 per cent from a decade ago.

"It's a travesty," said Ms. Barlee. "We have a government that's turned its back on the park system."

In 2001, BC Parks had about $40-million in government funding, she said. Today it is $30-million. And declining.

Bob Peart, president of the Elders Council for Parks in British Columbia, said the latest blow came when Premier Christy Clark announced on May 3 that parking will now be free in all provincial parks.

Mr. Peart said taking out the meters was a popular political move - but it robbed BC Parks of an estimated $650,000 in income.

"Premier Clark said the money would be replaced, but of course it hasn't been," said Mr. Peart. "Everyone I know in Parks says the money isn't there - and it isn't coming."

The B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union has been investigating the plight of BC Parks and last year obtained documents under Freedom of Information that showed how tight the budget was in 2009.

One memo advised park staff to park their vehicles when they ran out of gas. Another said there was no money to repair an outhouse that was threatening to collapse. Or to buy toilet paper.

BCGEU President Darryl Walker said things are no better this year.

"The underfunding of BC Parks is absolutely appalling," he said. "At least 40 vehicle leases have been terminated and gas budgets frozen, so many park rangers have no practical way to do their jobs. Some rangers are forced to take a Greyhound bus to patrol parks, because there's no vehicles or gas to run them."

Parks without functional trails. Broken outhouses. Bridges falling down. Rangers without gas. Parks without rangers. This isn't what the government had in mind 100 years ago when it founded the B.C. park system, dreaming of a Banff on Vancouver Island.

But parks were important then. And cabinet ministers climbed mountains. We could use some of that vision now.

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