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Canadian Writer Bemoans Park Privatization

July 29, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

A view of the beach at Bamberton Provincial Park in British Columbia.

Editor’s Note: The following opinion piece by Jody Paterson appeared in The Times Colonist, a newspaper serving Victoria and Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The B.C. parks system marked its 100th birthday this spring. So how are things going?

As an enthusiastic camper, I can attest that the campsites are still lovely, the scenery amazing and the pit toilets tolerable.

By the numbers, though, I think British Columbians have cause to be a little concerned.

It’s been a hard 10 years for B.C. Parks. Park operations were among the first targets for cuts by former premier Gordon Campbell, whose government closed campgrounds, scrapped forest-reserve sites, dumped interpretative programs and jacked up user fees soon after taking office.

Visits fell by almost 4 million the year after the 2002 cuts. They’ve never fully recovered, and took another turn for the worse this past year.

Some 19.2 million people visited a B.C. park in 2010-11. That’s down a million from the previous year, and not even close to the 25 million visitors of the mid-1990s. Satisfaction ratings are slipping as well, falling below the 80% mark for the first time in years.

The Liberals have been enthusiastic proponents of handing off public services to the private sector. Private companies now run everything from hospital food preparation to children’s group homes to seniors’ care to employment training – and parks.

The Socreds (British Columbia Social Credit Party) dabbled with privatizing some park functions in the 1980s, but now virtually all park and campground management has been privatized.

Thinking like a B.C. Liberal, I’d probably argue it doesn’t really matter who’s running things. People could count on pulling into a nice, clean campground back when government was renting the spot, and they still can.

Sure, they’re paying a little more for the experience, but the taxpayer is paying less. Sure, it bugged visitors when they started being charged for parking, but isn’t it nice that a new premier has rescinded that? Everybody’s happy.

Well, almost. As both a taxpayer and a parks user, I’m feeling a bit taken advantage of. What used to be a cheap night in the woods now feels like something of a shakedown.

Which might have something to do with why park visits have fallen 20% in the last 15 years.

Take a summer night of camping at Bamberton Provincial Park as an example.

The place looks like a deal at $16 a night. But you’ll need to add in the $6 a night reservation fee that you’re probably going to opt for in the high season. Then there’s the $7 a night firewood purchase. The $8 a night for a permit for an extra car at your site.

The $5 to dump your holding tanks if you’re in a trailer or motorhome. Oh, and don’t forget the HST.

Camping revenues have risen 27% since 2006-07, even while camping visits have flatlined. The increase is all due to higher fees.

You get access to a beautiful little piece of B.C. for all those fees. But you don’t get the power, water, swimming pool, video arcade and store, cable TV and horseshoe pit being offered at the private campground up the road for about the same money.

A provincial park does give you a serene camping experience that few private campsites can rival. But falling visitor numbers – now forecast to stall at around 19 million for the next three years – make it pretty clear that more than a few park visitors aren’t feeling the love.

Meanwhile, a decade-long focus on cutting costs has had a serious impact on the development of new park facilities. The Socreds built thousands of vehicle-accessible campsites during their tenure. The New Democrats built 1,500. The Liberals haven’t added a single one.

I admire private enterprise for its amazing ability to find new ways of turning a profit. We couldn’t live without its energy and drive. I don’t mean to criticize the work of the private sector, or knock the quality of park operations.

But really, is this what we want for our parks? The private sector is great at making money, but should that be the primary goal for the B.C. parks system? Where’s the vision?

Some things just aren’t suited to the private sector. Not everything is meant to be a revenue-generating opportunity. After 100 years of public investment, it’s downright shameful to be part of the generation that measures success by how little our government spends on parks.

Happy birthday, B.C. Parks. At your age, we ought to be showing you more respect.

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