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Press: Parks Canada Funding Issue Ironic

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Editor's Note: The following editorial appeared in the Lethbridge (Alberta) Herald.

Winter parks users are getting on Parks Canada's case about cuts to national park services.

This past weekend (Jan. 19-20), demonstrators conducting an "Occupy Winter" protest gathered in several national parks across Canada to demand the return of winter parks services that were halted this year. The cuts involve the shortening of visiting seasons and a move to self-guided historic sites.

Even parliamentarians, some of them Conservatives, have put pressure on Parks Canada officials in response to complaints from their constituents.

The irony there is that Parks Canada is in the predicament of having to trim services because of budget cuts to the federal parks agency implemented by the Conservative government. The cuts have led to the loss of more than 600 jobs at Parks Canada, forcing the agency that runs the country's national parks and historic sites to scale back its operations.

The agency has tried to deal with the budget cuts by increasing fees but that hasn't gone over well. Parks Canada's plan for a hefty boost to user fees along the Rideau Canal and Trent-Severn Waterway sparked such a backlash that the agency had to back down.

"If you make it too expensive, people won't use it, and it'll be self-defeating in terms of raising more revenue," Conservative MP Gord Brown, whose riding includes parts of the Rideau Canal, said in a Canadian Press story last week.

Brown is bang on with his assessment. An article on the Parks Canada website called "The History of Canada's National Parks: Their evolution and contribution towards Canadian identity" explains that the national parks system was originally established "to protect sites of natural wonder. The reason for their initial creation was to provide people with a recreational experience, which was centred around the idea of the natural world providing rest and spiritual renewal from urban settings."

Over time, the parks system has taken on more of an environmental role, but preserving these places for the enjoyment of Canadian citizens should still be an important part of Parks Canada's focus. And making sure these sites remain accessible for all Canadians should be a priority.

It's true that Parks Canada, or any agency, can't continue to provide the same services with less funding. So Parks Canada is currently seeking public input (until Feb. 18) on the issue of user fees. The Parks Canada website notes that the agency froze its fees at 2008 levels in response to the economic woes that hit Canadians in the wallet, but the fee freeze ends on March 31 of this year. Parks Canada is proposing fee hikes in line with the Consumer Price Index.

The website explains that only about 30% of the cost of visitor programs is funded by user fees, and that revenue remains in the area where it was collected. Parks Canada charges more than 3,300 different user fees for services such as entry and camping, as well as for privileges such as business licences.

Parks Canada oversees 44 national parks, 167 national historic sites and four national marine conservation areas across the country. It's important to ensure these sites are accessible for Canadians, and that means keeping fees reasonable.

That will require some tough decisions from the federal government come budget time to make sure there's sufficient funding for our national parks and historical sites. It doesn't work to cut Parks Canada funding but then complain when the agency proposes fee hikes to make up the shortfall. The money is going to have to come from someplace.

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