John Caton is a rainforest cowboy. Instead of the usual West Coast uniform of Gore-tex, fleece and Merrells, Cowboy Caton, as his friends call him, wears a white Stetson, white dress shirt, Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots.
John Caton is a rainforest cowboy. Instead of the usual West Coast uniform of Gore-tex, fleece and Merrells, Cowboy Caton, as his friends call him, wears a white Stetson, white dress shirt, Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. The GM of Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, a high-end adventure resort about an hour’s boat ride from Tofino at the mouth of the Bedwell River, stands out in an area better known for hippies and fishing enthusiasts. But then, just about everything about him is unique. He runs an equine-focused, safari-tent-style adventure resort that has become an “it” destination for families that can afford its $1,500-a-night per-person price tag. From the remote base, high-rolling guests (including pop singer Dave Matthews) explore the Bedwell River Valley on horseback and kayak and hike up to the edge of Strathcona Provincial Park, six kilometres away. But if Caton gets his way, and he usually does, they may soon go deep into the park as well. He’s proposing to renovate and maintain a remote trail into the park on Clayoquot Wilderness Resort’s tab. Caton’s proposal is stoking a passionate debate, made even more intense by the desperate state of B.C.’s park system. Coinciding with years of budget cuts and the implementation of user fees, the parks are suffering a decline in use, and the government is trying to do something about it.
Along comes Caton’s proposal. The lower Bedwell River Valley was logged in the 1950s, leaving behind a road that soon became part of the Bedwell River Trail, a 26-kilometre backpacking route from sub-alpine forest to ocean. Lack of maintenance over the years has turned the trek into an epic expedition of multiple river crossings and bushwhacks that humble all but the most experienced hiker. Caton says many hiking parties turn back in frustration. As if the trail wasn’t bad enough, the Ministry of Environment’s BC Parks and Protected Areas Program condemned one of the old bridges in June 2006, effectively closing it. Caton wants to reroute the trail and build five new bridges to make it easier to climb into the pristine alpine at the head of the Bedwell Valley. It’s no small feat on the West Coast, where the topography is steep and the rainfall can be relentless. In exchange, he wants reserved camping spots two days a week for resort guests at a high-elevation campsite he will pay to build. While it may be a controversial proposal, it is worth considering, says Brian Gunn, president of the BC Wilderness Tourism Association, who notes that use of parks is falling and BC Parks’ responsibilities continue to grow while its budgets shrink. Anything that improves conditions and adds facilities at no cost to the taxpayer can only help, he adds.
BC Parks won’t comment on the proposal while it is under consideration. But the program is increasingly looking at partnerships with people such as Caton as part of a provincial government strategy to increase use and recoup some of the costs of operating the park system. In 2003 parking meters were installed in the 40 most popular provincial parks, and in 2006 the provincial government requested proposals for private lodges in 12 provincial parks. Two were received, along with bags full of negative public reaction that prompted the government to delay soliciting proposals for other parks. Environmental and user groups decry the idea of commercial operations in a publicly funded park. But given the appetite in Victoria for increasing BC Parks’ budgets – decidedly low – it may be the only way to sustain the system. Most of BC Parks’ assets were built through the 1960s and 1980s and are now worth about $700 million in replacement value. Through the ’90s, the capital costs budget, or the money available to repair, improve or build facilities, was about $4 million annually. It fell to $2.5 million in 2002 but is now back up to $10.9 million this year as infrastructure reaches the end of its life. Compared to the capital budget, the operating budget hasn’t fared well. The late ’70s were BC Parks’ glory years. The operating budget was a plump $72.6 million, and 421 full-time-equivalent staff were on the payroll to run a park system that covered 4.6 per cent of the province. The budget came directly from the government treasury. Over the next 30 years, BC Parks budgets and staffing fell, while protected area and infrastructure grew. Through the ’90s, budgets fell by two to six per cent each year. The 2002 provincial cutbacks trimmed even more (see table, p. 143). By 2007 the operating budget was $36.9 million and staff numbered 194; although both numbers were up slightly from the previous year, they went toward running 894 parks and protected areas covering 13.8 per cent of the province – about triple the number and area of parks in 1977. “There’s a significant difference in what you could do with those budgets,” notes Brian Bawtinheimer, acting director of management and planning at BC Parks. “The costs of everything are much higher now. And the system is much bigger.” As the system grew in size, the resources to maintain, promote and improve it fell. During the budget cuts of 2001 to 2005, popular park features such as maps, brochures and interpretation programs died. Since 2001, 40 campgrounds have been closed or transferred to regional districts and cities because they were operating at a loss. (The rest, 340 accessible by vehicle, are operated by 27 contractors who keep profits and are reimbursed for any losses from the park’s budget.) At the same time, parking fees for day visitors at the 40 busiest parks and firewood fees at park campsites were introduced to reclaim costs. Day users paid $11.5 million to park their cars in 2006, half going to the contractor who collected the fees and half going into the provincial treasury.
Declines in service, coupled with parking fees, caused people to look elsewhere for their park time, says Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. “The last two governments thought the park system could take care of itself,” she says. “They traded our parks for money, and now we’re seeing the effects. Trails are degraded, facilities are neglected, there are no interpretation programs, you never see a ranger. People feel scared. All these things whittled away visits.” Park use topped out in 1998, with 26 million visits. Over the next eight years, use tumbled by seven million visits to 19 million in 2005, while the population of B.C. increased from 3.9 million in 1998 to 4.25 million in 2005. Last year use held steady, but day visits continued to decline in the Lower Mainland (BC Parks could not say by how much). It’s worth noting the decline in park use is not unique to B.C. Across North America the use of protected areas is declining. Ask any outdoor-gear manufacturer and they will say people are doing shorter and fewer trips into backcountry areas today than they did in the past. Consequently, brands such as Arc’Teryx, Mountain Hardwear and Timberland are shifting their product focus from backpackers to urban users and daytrippers. One reason for the decline is the demographic shift taking place in B.C., Bawtinheimer says. “Parks are a Western European construction,” he says. “There are barriers to overcome with immigrants if we are going to get them to use parks. They aren’t going to join the camping crowd.” He says Asian immigrants, in particular, aren’t using parks. And he says the population is aging and not using parks in the same way they used to. As proof he points to urban parks: at the same time when provincial park use fell, Metro Vancouver (formerly the GVRD) park use increased by 30 per cent. BC Parks admits it is partially to blame. Its own studies have found that most people don’t know where their closest provincial park is. “We haven’t had a promotional program since 2002,” Bawtinheimer says. “We haven’t had the budget for it.” [pagebreak] To measure the pulse on public opinion about BC Parks, the government conducts regular surveys. The most thorough was a 1998 study, called the Parks Legacy Project, held in 154 open houses and workshops across the province. British Columbians said they want to protect parks for ecological and recreational purposes and to hold them in public trust for perpetuity, to use them only for public good and ensure they are not sold, privatized or commercialized. More recently, surveys done in 2001 and 2005 found that the public was looking for other types of accommodation and funding options for parks. Close to 60 per cent of respondents were okay with the idea of huts in backcountry areas, and 40 per cent thought hostels were okay. There was also support for increasing camping fees and charging for firewood. At the same time, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers LLP did an analysis of the economic impact of visitors to BC Parks. The study found that for every dollar spent by government in provincial parks, visitors spend $10 in nearby communities. The same study estimated that parks contribute $521 million to provincial GDP annually. Another study by Tourism BC in 2002 found that nature-based tourism – lodging, outfitting and guiding in wilderness settings such as provincial parks – generated $908.9 million in 2001 and employed 20,776 people in B.C. who earned a total of $556.2 million. So after digesting the studies and considering options and potential impacts, BC Parks raised camping fees in 2003, started charging for firewood and, in the 40 busiest parks – all in the Lower Mainland, Okanagan and Vancouver Island areas – brought in parking fees. Use fell further in those 40 parks by an estimated three million visitors. Vicky Husband, spokesperson for the Campaign for BC Parks, a coalition of 13 environmental groups including the David Suzuki Foundation and the Sierra Club, says she’s typical; she would rather use a different park that is free than pay for parking. “Most British Columbians think they’ve already paid for parks,” she says. While park use has steadied in some areas, it continues to decline in some of the Lower Mainland parks. However, Bawtinheimer says fees are less to blame than Husband and others make out, especially when people are told where the fees go: 50 per cent back into the park and 50 per cent to the contractor who services the lot. “When people understand that the fee goes back into the park, there is a much higher acceptance,” he says. Betting on the same reaction, Barry Penner, a former park ranger and now the man in charge of parks as environment minister, announced the Fixed-Roof Accommo-dation Policy in August 2006. The plan was to open 12 provincial parks to lodge-and hotel-style accommodation proposals. “Changing demographics and expectations require us to look for ways of providing park visitors with a wider range of options,” he said at the time. The new lodges would work on the same system as the 160 private lodges already operating in B.C. parks. Most were grandfathered in when the land they sat on became a park. They pay a lease to BC Parks, which is fed into the general provincial treasury and then redistributed to the park budget. Even pro-wilderness-resort organizations such as the BC Wilderness Tourism Association spoke against the plan. Members of the 500-strong Union of B.C. Municipalities wrote letters voicing their concerns. In the end, the ministry received two proposals: one for a chain of small cabins on the North Coast Trail (a new hiking route on Vancouver Island’s north coast) and an Alpine Club of Canada proposal for a climbing cabin in Mount Robson Provincial Park. Barlee says public outrage at the plan has forced the government to rethink offering more parks up for lodge proposals. Instead, Bawtinheimer says, BC Parks is diversifying its strategy. It is thinking of adding water and electrical hookups, flush toilets and showers to park campsites to attract more users who may have been turned off camping by the lack of amenities. And to boost exposure and build on the health benefits of recreation in parks, BC Parks is partnering with ActNow BC, a provincial public-health program, to encourage British Columbians to be more active.
On the private front, BC Parks partnered with the Knowledge Network TV channel to stage a reality show in several parks. Inexperienced campers were chosen from thousands of applicants to do various activities in different B.C. parks. One-hour episodes of Wild at Heart aired in the spring. In one, participants went mountaineering in Bugaboo Provincial Park. In another, they went caving at Horne Lake Provincial Park. BC Parks hopes the exposure will bring a new generation into the backcountry. Recently the B.C. Floatplane Association approached BC Parks to help out with facilities. Association members already act like eyes and ears for BC Parks as they shuttle people in and out of parks. Last summer the association built tent platforms at fly-in campsites in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. People such as Barlee and Husband have no problem with those kinds of partnerships, but other ventures aren’t as innocent. If you look at a map of Strathcona Provin-cial Park, its chunky, disfigured boundary is testament to the almost regular land swaps with logging companies. An even closer look reveals that Strathcona is actually a doughnut. In 1965 a chunk of Strathcona was demoted from Class A (the highest level of protection) to Class C (the lowest level) to allow a mine to open. The Myra Falls Mine inside Strathcona-Westmin Provincial Park (which in turn is inside Strathcona park), is a copper-gold-zinc-silver underground mine owned by Breakwater Resources Ltd. that produces one million tons of ore and pays $30 million in salaries a year to 375 local employees. It’s expected to operate at least until 2012. “We don’t want any more Strathconas,” says Barlee. But more may be on the way. Provincial parks are protected by legislation, so boundary adjustments usually require serious persistence and patience, but not as much as they used to. The present Liberal government streamlined and updated the requirements of the Provincial Park Boundary Adjustment Policy in 2004. The policy says, “Boundary modifications are normally approved only where there are significant environmental, social or economic benefits to the Province that exceed the importance of preserving the integrity of the existing park boundary and values.” Run of River Power Inc., based in Delta, is banking on that policy. The independent power producer wants to build a series of run-of-river hydro projects in the upper Pitt River drainage. The easiest, least environmentally damaging and cheapest way to get the power out of the remote valley, says company president Jako Krushnisky, is to run power lines through Pinecone Burke Provincial Park, a parcel of old-growth, high-alpine forest adjacent to Garibaldi Provincial Park. The lines would link with the Sea to Sky Corridor near Squamish. Krushnisky says if there were another feasible option, they would take it, and he insists BC Parks is not encouraging this type of activity in parks and won’t gain financially from the venture. (BC Parks would likely receive right-of-way payments through a deal and is entertaining the company’s proposal.) The project could power 85,000 homes. Meanwhile on Vancouver Island, Strategic Forest Management Inc. (SFM) is doing well augmenting its usual business – resource-management consulting – with BC Parks contracts. In the Cape Scott Provincial Park area, at the north end of Vancouver Island, it has built and maintained trails. In 2003 it was awarded the contract to build the North Coast Trail. After three years of work, the trail is complete at a cost of $1.2 million. So when Minister Penner included Cape Scott Provincial Park in the Fixed-Roof Accommodation Policy, SFM jumped at the chance to capitalize on its intimate knowledge of the area. Its proposal for a series of hiking cabins along the North Coast Trail is now moving into the environmental-assessment phase. Jonathan Lok, GM for SFM, says the huts, which would cost about $500,000, would make the trail accessible to a whole group of people who wouldn’t visit the park or the Port Hardy area otherwise. “Certainly, our vision is that the huts will make money,” he says. “But more than that, we think it will be good for the region. It will show there’s a lot more to do in the region than primary resource extraction.” And he thinks, done right, there is potential for more private enterprise inside BC Parks. “I believe private-public partnerships in parks will happen in certain places,” he says. “But it won’t happen uniformly. In some parks it doesn’t make sense.” Down the coast in Clayoquot Sound, Cowboy Caton thinks his proposal is one that does make sense. No one objects to improving the Bedwell River Trail – it would probably encourage more people to use the area of the park, bringing money to communities such as Tofino, Gold River, Campbell River and local First Nations – but many are concerned with horse use and a private company getting involved in the park. “It’s the thin edge of the wedge,” says Barlee. “We don’t want to start a dangerous precedent.” Caton is baffled by it all. He sees his proposal as a simple exchange that benefits the public more than his business. Still, he’s found himself in a six-gun shootout with the environmentalists he usually finds himself fighting alongside. No one knows how this particular gun battle will end, but it may turn out to be the precedent to watch.