The Private Business of Public Parks

Eddie Wood, Sea to Sky Park Services | BCBusiness
Eddie Wood, proprietor and general manager of Sea to Sky Park Services.

Private companies operating in B.C.’s provincial parks are caught between attracting enough visitors to sustain operations and the environmental imperative of maintaining the ‘super natural’ brand that is B.C.’s calling card to the world

It’s a brilliant Thursday afternoon in late April, and the campground at Porteau Cove Provincial Park is already buzzing with early-season visitors. A family of Chinese-Canadian immigrants picnics on a spiky durian. A few seniors patrol the paths on mobility scooters with bread-loaf-sized dogs on leash. Two teenaged girls in sweaters and sunglasses pluck their way across the beach.

Above them, rufous hummingbirds—the males with their iridescent red ascots and rusty bellies; the females speckled with green—whir from branch to branch, refuelling after their flights from Mexico.

In one sweeping view from this park, it’s clear what draws visitors of all species to B.C. The daunting, snow-capped Tantalus Range mountains tower above lush cedar forests, which in turn rise above the waters of Howe Sound. Wipe away the complacency that can fog your eyes if you’ve lived near such scenery for a long time, and B.C.’s allure is all the more astonishing.

Of course, the pastoral scene doesn’t remind one of a business, but that’s exactly what Porteau Cove Provincial Park is. In the big picture, the park is just one of B.C. Parks’ 1,000 protected areas, which cover 13,158,492 hectares and contribute $392 million annually to the province’s GDP, according to the provincial government’s calculations. People come for the parks, but along the way they pay for food, gas, lodging and other services. The province sells itself to the world’s tourists under the slogan “Super Natural British Columbia,” making parks a critical foundation of the provincial brand. (The province’s chest-thumping slogan, “The Best Place on Earth,” died a quiet, un-mourned death in 2011.)

Porteau Cove is one of 251 parks managed by private contractors to B.C. Parks. This privatization began with a handful of parks in 1983 and expanded to others over the years. In these parks, all the campground operations—from the maintaining of facilities to the collection of fees—are handled by private-sector park facility operators, or PFOs. The province maintains ownership and holds the ultimate say in what services or amenities can be offered in which parks and at what price. The contractors put boots on the ground to carry out those plans.

For business owner Eddie Wood, idyllic, oceanside spots such as Porteau Cove are where he hangs his shingle. Wood is the proprietor and general manager of Sea to Sky Park Services Ltd., a PFO that manages three groups, or what the province calls “bundles,” of parks that surround the Lower Mainland. B.C. Parks may be the landowner and the brand, but PFOs such as Sea to Sky are the face of the park system that the visiting public interacts with. It can be a conflicted business arrangement, with operators being paid by the province ostensibly to keep park-goers happy. The whims and budgetary decisions of government must not go unheeded, even if those demands clash with the needs of park users or how operators would like to serve them.

And, of course, many of these businesses operate in places where the balance is weighted more strongly toward the ecological bottom line than the financial one. Environmental restrictions vary from park to park, so some feature drive-in campsites, electrical hookups and plumbing, while others feature little more than a few trails and the company of wild grizzlies.

“We’re the contractor to B.C. Parks,” explains Wood, as he shows me around the Porteau Cove campground. “The model in this region is we maintain all the revenues that we collect. The expenses are greater than the revenue. And it results in the province providing us with a deficiency.”

Last year, PFOs across B.C. took in a total of $15 million in revenues and were paid an additional $3.7 million in deficiency payments by the government. The revenues collected by PFOs have risen steadily over the past few years. In 2006-07, PFOs collected just under $12 million. Meanwhile, deficiency payments have fluctuated between $3.2 million and $4.9 million since that year. Overall, contract costs of PFOs and other contractors amounted to a little under $20 million out of B.C. Parks’ $48.5- million total operating costs last year. By comparison, B.C. Parks took in $19.2 million of revenue from fees in parks not operated by PFOs, and from other sources.

Those deficiency payments sound like a recipe for PFOs to grow complacent in attracting more park users or expanding revenues: why bother running a tight ship if the province is on the hook for any shortfalls? But Wood says there are measures to counteract that disincentive. “Over time, when B.C. Parks sees our business grow, [sees] revenues grow, we have certain points within our contract that we renegotiate,” he says. “So we have the incentive to grow the business for obvious reasons. And the benefit is also to the province.”

Two striking log cabins near the entrance of Porteau Cove’s campground stand as testimony to this approach. The buildings, still fragrant with the smell of the hulking cedar trunks they are made from, cost visitors $200 a night to stay in during the peak season that extends from the May long weekend to the October long weekend. It’s as far from roughing it as you can get in a provincial park: each features beds with full linen service, a three-piece bath, kitchen, satellite TV and a furnished deck, complete with propane barbecue, overlooking the ocean.

Image: Paul Joseph
An Olympic Legacy Cabin in Porteau Cove Provincial Park costs $200 per night.

The Olympic Legacy Cabins, as they are known, began life as information centres to tell 2010 Games visitors about B.C. Parks. “B.C. Parks came to us right after the Olympics and said there was an opportunity for two cabins in a park. And given the contractual nature of our agreement, would we be interested in seeing them in one of the parks in the Sea to Sky corridor?” Wood says. “And we said, ‘Absolutely.’”

The interiors were barren of the furnishings that Wood’s company has since put in place. Sea to Sky Parks markets the cabins and handles the bookings and their operation. “The more nights we can sell, the better,” says Wood.

He is careful to point out, however, that the cabins were only installed after much planning and consultation. The province and its park operators are always under pressure to grow revenues, but commercializing the park system risks destroying the values that the public most cherishes about them.

“We all believe that the brand is important, and so any additional services we bring in need to fit the park,” says Wood about his fellow park operators. “Otherwise, ultimately people stop coming to the park.”

The Porteau Cove cabins are unlikely to start a wave of luxury accommodations within B.C. Parks’ boundaries—at least not if the Crown agency has learned from its fights of the past decade. The province came under heavy protest in 2006 when it suggested the possibility of private lodges in 12 of its parks. The Ministry of Environment, which is responsible for B.C. Parks, put out requests for proposals to find private-sector partners. Unlike the government-owned Porteau Cove cabins, the new lodges would be privately owned and operated under a long-term land-use permit from the province. The op-ed pages in the province’s newspapers swelled with letters and editorials calling the idea disastrous.

Gwen Barlee is the policy director for the Wilderness Committee, an environmental advocacy group with a strong focus on the park system. She says several investors from outside B.C. called her to gauge the viability of the opportunity. The public, she told them, would never allow them.

In the seven years since, none of the lodges have been built. The government received no proposals for seven of the 12 parks under consideration. Of potential investors in resort developments in those parks, Barlee says, “They thought it wasn’t a good place to place their money.”

Two companies did make successful proposals, however, and their projects will now face impact assessments and consultations with First Nations and the public. Strategic Forest Management Inc. is looking to build “minimal-impact” yurts in Cape Scott Park, and Liard Air Ltd. is seeking to build a two-storey, 15-guest lodge in Maxhamish Lake Park near the Northwest Territories border. Liard, in particular, should expect public opposition.

“The public spoke very clearly that we don’t want to see parks privatized,” says Barlee. For many British Columbians, the parks are a gift paid for by their taxes to be handed with care from one generation to the next. If the province goes too far in trying to wring more money out of its public parks, it can hurt the bottom line as well as poll numbers.

The great parking-meter fiasco is a telling illustration of the B.C. public’s opposition to monetizing public parks. In 2003, the provincial government of the day installed parking meters at 41 of its most popular parks. Visitors were charged between $3 and $5 to park for the day. Immediately, park visits plummeted. At Murrin Park, where the cars of summertime crowds once threatened to overflow onto the highway, visitors would drive up, scan the meter and drive off in disgust. The lot would fill again when, by act of God or gum-chewing vandal, the machines failed and people could park for free.

According to an internal report prepared by what was then the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection (since renamed Ministry of Environment), visits to parks near the Lower Mainland dropped 27 per cent. Some 15,000 parking tickets were issued. None was ever paid. Public compliance with the meters averaged 25 per cent. The government had hoped to make up to $2 million a year in parking fees. In the 2005-06 fiscal year, the government had in fact reaped just $228,000 after accounting for costs. The parking meters were removed in 2011.

Wood says visitor numbers bounced back after parking became free again, but there’s a downside. “The consequence has been it’s put more pressure on the province, as far as their budgets are concerned. And so that effect has been evident.”


Image: Paul Joseph
View of Anvil Island in Howe Sound from Porteau Cove.

According to annual reports published by B.C. Parks, the park system is being squeezed. While critics have assailed the government for what they call cutbacks to parks, it would be more accurate to say the province has allowed parks funding to lag behind inflation. B.C. Parks spent $48.5 million in total operating costs for 2011-12 (the sum of its $33.5-million total operating budget plus its contract costs). In 1994, that figure was $44.2 million—or about $63 million in real 2012 dollars.

Scott Webster, president of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C., says this budgetary neglect has had a cascading effect. “It went off the rails at some point,” he says. “The past decade has been particularly bad.” From his perspective, the result has been more hazardous conditions in the backcountry. Bridges have been washed out and not replaced. Trails have fallen into disrepair. While it’s up to PFOs to manage trails near campgrounds and day-use areas, the government is still responsible for those in remaining areas. The number of full-time rangers has fallen from 27 in 2001 to 12 today.

The danger to the province is that if its brand becomes tarnished, the flow of visitors slows. The provincial government worked with the Canada Parks Council on a 2011 report showing that each dollar invested in the parks system generated $8.42 in visitor expenditures, and total park visitor expenditures helped create 5,200 full-time jobs.

For PFOs like the one Wood runs, budget cuts mean he can’t offer some of the services that might encourage visitors to stay longer. At Porteau Cove, a small amphitheatre sits gathering moss. The interpretive programs that once were offered there have been eliminated due to lack of funding.

“You know, people are looking for things to do in parks,” says Wood, adding that the park interpreter program was very popular for that reason. “We helped facilitate that. That’s been a great service. We’re looking at ways of bringing that back.”

Wood’s tree-trimming budget has also been, well, trimmed, and the lines in the parking lots get painted less often. Depending on the park, he does still offer amenities such as canoe rentals, paddleboard rentals, ice cream and campfire wood, all of which bring in more money.

Image: Paul Joseph
Provincial beaches are rich playgrounds.

This summer many PFOs face graver concerns than choosing between various revenue-generating options; for some, it could be their last summer in business. The 10-year contracts for the majority of parks that were signed with the province in 2004 are up for tender, meaning contractors have to bid against competitors for their livelihoods. Sometime in August, the contractors expect to hear their fate.

“I’d like to think that for us to be successful for another term, it creates the continuity and the excellent service and the maintenance that we’ve been able to provide,” says Wood. “But at the same time we understand and appreciate that the province has these terms.”

PFOs are family businesses, not Fortune 500 corporations. For some, running these businesses is the only occupation their owners have known. Sea to Sky Parks is, relatively speaking, a big operator, with 120 employees managing 18 parks close to the province’s biggest population centre. It operates three bundles, whereas many PFOs handle only one. The company is a subsidiary of another business, the ski hill Mt. Seymour Resorts Ltd., which has been run by Wood’s family since 1984. The two companies share some management staff, such as a controller, human resources manager and an accounting department. Losing the parks contracts would be a painful blow to the overall company, but perhaps not a death knell.

The picture changes when you move farther away from Vancouver. Merlin Blackwell, for example, runs Blackwell Park Operations Ltd. in the North Thompson district around the town of Clearwater. About 18 employees look after provincial parks in an area the size of Prince Edward Island. The centrepiece of the company’s operations is the 5,200-square-kilometre Wells Gray Provincial Park, B.C.’s fourth largest. Much of the park is a vast wilderness harbouring vistas of multi-storey waterfalls as reward for only the most intrepid hikers.

Blackwell Park Operations is one of the longest-running PFOs, with the family managing parks in the Cariboo region beginning in the mid-1980s, when the privatization of parks facilities management was in its infancy. Merlin Blackwell vividly remembers the day in 1989 when the company moved to Wells Gray. “On my 19th birthday,” he recalls. “June 24, 1989: First day of work in Wells Gray Park. I’ve been here pretty much ever since.”

That experience leaves Blackwell fairly confident that newcomers won’t bid him out of the career he’s built since he reached legal drinking age. The province is looking to constrain costs, but a bargain-basement bid won’t be any good if the operator is not up to the task. “I think it’s really a specialized thing, because the number of things you need to know to be able to operate one of these bundles properly is quite extensive,” he says.

“I’m a certified tree faller, certified small water systems, certified hazard tree, and those are the ones I’m required to have tickets on,” Blackwell adds. “Plus 30 or 40 little skills that there aren’t a ticket for.”

Indeed, Blackwell is concerned about where the next generation of park operators will come from. “Our industry, like every industry, is caught in the boomer crunch,” he says. “And we need some people in the top end to take over the operations of these companies.”

The next contract is for five years, with extensions that will take them to 15 years. Blackwell says that at age 43 this summer, he’s among a small cohort under 45 in an industry dominated by people in their late fifties and early sixties. Some PFOs will retire at the end of this season instead of bidding on the next contract.

Of the younger set, he says, “A lot of them are like me. They’re park brats, or park orphans. Driving along in pickup trucks when babysitters weren’t available.” His concern for this generation isn’t due to age or lack of experience.

“A lot of them have decided that it’s just too much damn work,” he says.