Increasing funding for B.C. Parks should be a priority for political leaders this election after a busy summer exposed the consequences of years of neglect, some outdoor advocates say.
British Columbians flocked to local parks partly due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. An influx of campers crashed the B.C. Parks website, its new day pass system left some hikers scrambling and trails were damaged from overuse.
Barry Janyk, executive director of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C., says B.C. Parks' $40.6 million budget is not enough to maintain and build new trails to disperse the increasing numbers of visitors.
"One of the things that makes me crazy about the province is they see parks as God's ATM," Janyk said.
"What we're seeing right now is the results of no investment in the provincial park system for the last 20 years.
"Some conservation groups have said the province needs to invest an additional $60 million if it expects to keep wilderness areas pristine for years to come.
Janyk doesn't think that number is unreasonable.
The 2019 budget for Metro Vancouver Regional Parks totals $42.6 million for 23 regional parks, five greenways, two ecological conservancy areas and two regional park reserves.
With $40.6 million, B.C. Parks manages one of the largest parks systems in North America, with more than 14 million hectares and 1,034 parks and protected areas.
Janyk says the day pass reservation system, which the province says cost $900,000, was a missed opportunity.
He says the money would have been better spent creating and maintaining more trails to better disperse crowds.
Hikers unable to snag day passes to popular areas instead planned last-minute trips into nearby areas that weren't prepared to handle increased volume, Janyk said.
This also resulted in more calls to search and rescue crews from hikers unprepared for rough terrain, he added.
"$900,000 that could have built many kilometres of trails. It could have opened up more access," Janyk said.
Volunteers doing 'enormous' amount of work
This proved to be a problem at Watersprite Lake this summer, said Chris Ludwig, president of the B.C. Mountaineering Club.
Day passes were required for nearby Elfin Lakes, a moderate hike in Garibaldi Park. Hikers who missed out on a pass for that area would instead opt to visit Watersprite Lake, he said, a more challenging day hike that didn't require a pass.
The added traffic put pressure on the trail and volunteers who manage it, Ludwig said.
"We've had to do an enormous amount of work," he said.
"We've had to, this year, carry thousands of pounds of material, install a whole pile of enforcement in order to cope with the double numbers, because otherwise the soil and the ground could not withstand this level of impact."
Ludwig says B.C. Parks needs more funding for infrastructure, trail building, and public education so that British Columbians can spread out and enjoy parks safely and responsibly.
The methodology for implementing the day pass system was never clear, the limits on people allowed in each park was applied inconsistently, and not enough research was done into where people would be going if they couldn't get a day pass, he added.
Without more funding to manage the impacts of crowds, he says some of the most beautiful places in the province could become off-limits to British Columbians — like Joffre Lakes, an extremely popular area that remained fully closed this summer due to COVID-19.
"You have to think long term and to think collectively as a society that these wonderful places and assets are communal assets to all of us," Ludwig said.
"They belong to all of us. And we need a collective discussion and sense of ownership and pride and share in them."
Citing the election, the province declined to comment on whether the pass system would be implemented again next summer or whether it would commit to increasing funding to B.C. Parks.
In an email, the B.C. Green Party says B.C. Parks has been "chronically underfunded" and that it supports increasing funding.
Jordan Sturdy, B.C. Liberal candidate for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, said he supports better funding for parks but declined to comment on a specific number.
"The system is underfunded," he said. "It does need to see a big investment."
Janyk said the cost of maintaining trails shouldn't fall on those who use them, so he doesn't believe B.C. Parks should charge for day passes.
He says the upcoming provincial election offers an opportunity to discuss something he believes most British Columbians care about, and for party leaders to commit to better funding provincial parks.
"It's just an obvious no-brainer," Janyk said. "Parks [are] very near and dear to people."