It’s time to move to an integrated funding model for outdoor recreation in British Columbia

Tourism is a significant industry in BC and the growth is set to continue. In a press release on May 29th, 2018, celebrating Tourism Week, the BC Government notes that:

“British Columbia’s tourism industry generated $17 billion in revenue in 2016 — a 7.9% increase from the year before — and made a direct contribution of $7.9 billion to the province’s gross domestic product (GDP). Tourism remains one of B.C.’s largest sectors, contributing as much to the province’s GDP as oil and gas, and more than mining, forestry and agriculture.”

It’s no secret that our natural attractions are a leading reason why people visit British Columbia. Around the world, regions that attract visitors for similar reasons have faced major challenges in harnessing the growth of the tourism industry without destroying the very areas and experiences that visitors are seeking. When managed well, recreation tourism is an economically productive use of natural resources and delivers many tangential benefits to residents including new trail systems. When managed poorly, the industry fails to achieve its growth potential and residents start to fight against the industry due to the strain it can place on natural areas.

In British Columbia, the cracks are starting to show and we need the provincial government to demonstrate renewed leadership in the way that outdoor recreation is managed and funded.

Many people are surprised to learn how disjointed the approach is to the promotion and management of outdoor recreation in BC.

Consider the four following agencies:

Destination BC

Destination BC is a Crown Corporation that receives its mandate and funding from the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture. Destination BC promotes outdoor recreation opportunities very heavily to draw visitors to BC. In addition to the significant amount of money spent on advertising, Destination BC has a large social media presence with over 375,000 followers on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/hellobc/) and 2.4 million uses of the #ExploreBC hashtag by “brand advocates” (with a goal of increasing that to 7.8 million by 2020/2021). When Destination BC promotes a trail, the world is listening.

Destination BC is not slowing down anytime soon. In March of 2017, it was announced that Destination BC was being moved to a performance based funding formula. The base funding of $50 million/year is guaranteed but as the tourism sector grows, Destination BC will be rewarded with further increases in funding:

“To ensure the momentum in B.C.’s tourism sector continues, the Province has outlined a new funding formula for Destination BC that ensures stability and sustainability for the future. The new funding model will protect the annual base funding of $50 million, and will allow for ongoing increases tied to both Destination BC performance and the success of the tourism sector. This means that there is an opportunity over the next six years for Destination BC’s annual base budget to increase by $5 million over what it is today — and that number could continue to grow year-by-year. “

BC Parks

BC Parks is the agency in the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change responsible for managing over 1000 protected areas spanning over 14 million hectares across the province. In the 2018/2019 budget year, BC Parks has an operating budget of $40.5 million. To put that in perspective, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society notes that “Alberta Parks’ 2017 budget was $85M for only 20% of the landmass of BC Parks.”

Existing infrastructure (trails, campgrounds, parking lots, etc.) are now at capacity in many parks and can not support additional visitors. As one example, backcountry campsites in Garibaldi Provincial Park have recently transitioned from being entirely first-come first-serve to requiring a reservation at all campsites year-round. Joffre Lakes Provincial Park is another example of a Provincial Park that has become a victim of overcrowding and BC Parks recently implemented a “no dogs” rule to try to help manage the consequences of a massive increase in traffic.

That’s not to say that the land mass in the park system is at capacity. A long-term source of frustration for the outdoor community is that around 30% of protected areas do not have a valid management plan due to a lack of resources in BC Parks to develop the plans. Without a valid management plan, parks like Pinecone Burke and Callaghan Lake are vastly underutilized since the government is unable to move forward with the development of trails and campgrounds prior to the plans being in place. In other parks, a lack of investment in basic maintenance means that existing trails are hard to access.

In isolation, the management decisions being made by BC Parks make sense. In the larger picture though, the overall actions of the government are infuriatingly uncoordinated with each agency inside the government independently optimizing for their own objectives.

Consider the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. The park is now so busy that it’s very difficult for locals or tourists to find a parking spot, let alone to enjoy a little solitude on the trail. Despite this, Destination BC continues to actively promote the park. Their most recent post promoting this park on May 2nd received over 8000 likes (https://www.instagram.com/p/BiS35DXA7T3/?hl=en&taken-by=hellobc).

Even more important though is the question of what happens when BC Parks “closes the door” on a park either by actively placing new access restrictions or by not taking steps to upgrade the capacity . Where do all those people go? The answer is the next agency in the list.

BC Recreation Sites and Trails

Most people in BC are less familiar with this agency but it delivers the largest bang-for-the-buck of any spending on outdoor recreation due to their extensive expertise in developing partnerships. Responsible for 1750 recreation sites and over 530 recreation trails, in 2014/15, it had an operational budget of just over $7 million. BC Recreation Sites and Trails are particularly vulnerable to increases in visitors because the facilities are generally more rustic than BC Parks and are not staffed with rangers. When BC Parks starts to place limits on access, the BC Recreation Sites and Trails system acts as the overflow. A recent example of what happens when crowds of people are pushed to a recreation site can be seen at Keyhole Falls hot springs which was closed to all recreational users after bears became habituated.

In the case of the closure of Joffre Lakes Provincial Park to visitors with dogs, many folks are concerned about where those hikers will end up. It seems inevitable that they will end up on BC Recreation Sites and Trails in the region and that those areas may suffer the same fate as Keyhole Falls. BC Parks may be acting responsibly in isolation but they are just pushing the problem onto BC Recreation Sites and Trails. If BC Recreation Sites and Trails is expected to deal with the overflow, shouldn’t they also be receiving additional funding to do so? It’s also important to note that there are a vast number of informal “routes” in the province that are very actively used (some even have parking areas and are featured in guidebooks) but are not designated as official trails. If BC Recreation Sites and Trails had adequate funding, they would be able to properly designate these trails and fund upgrades as required.

Search and Rescue

Ground Search and Rescue in BC is carried out by teams of volunteers. When there is an increase in outdoor tourism, there is an increase in the number of call-outs for these volunteer teams. Even if visitors are responsible and well-prepared, many call-outs are unavoidable. So long as people are made of flesh and bone, injuries and illness will occur in the backountry and SAR will be required to bring people out to safety. As tourism numbers increase and people are pushed out of BC Parks and into trails that are more rustic (with no ranger presence and less signage in general,) the calls will likely continue to become more frequent and more complex.

In many ways, SAR is the backbone of our entire tourism industry. If tourists died on a very regular basis while visiting British Columbia, you can be sure that people would start visiting other regions instead. Despite the critical role that they play, funding for SAR teams is unstable and inadequate. SAR volunteers need to invest a meaningful amount of their volunteer time asking for money through annual grant applications to the government to help cover the practical costs of running a team. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the government be offering adequate operational funding to the teams in return for expecting them to be on-call 24/7 to volunteer their time as a critical link in supporting a $17 billion industry? The BC Search and Rescue Association has been asking for the funding model to be modernized but it appears that the effort has been completely stalled. The latest available update is that the proposal was submitted to the provincial government for internal review in December of 2015.

http://www.bcsara.com/projects/support-model/

An Integrated Funding Model

When you put all the pieces together, it becomes clear how illogical the current funding model is and how easy it is for the different agencies to become misaligned.

- Destination BC has a larger operating budget than BC Parks and BC Recreation Sites and Trails combined and a promise that their budget will be increased if they can bring more visitors into the province.

- Destination BC uses their massive advertising budget to push people into a park system that is over-capacity and can’t handle more visitors until a reasonable investment is made to develop new trails and complete management plans. BC Parks responds by implementing limits on how many visitors can access the parks.

- Visitors that can’t find a space in the parks then then end up in the BC Recreation Sites and Trails system which has a tiny budget and just over 40 staff to cover the entire province. That system of trails is particularly prone to damage from a large influx of visitors as the facilities are more rustic and lack monitoring by rangers.

- The massive influx in visitors results in over 1600 call-outs for Search and Rescue volunteers. These volunteer teams are scrambling to keep up with the financial needs of operating a team through fundraising efforts and grant applications.

The Government of BC and the tourism industry are on a crash course with reality. If Destination BC is incentivized to continue to promote outdoor recreation while BC Parks, BC Recreation Sites and Trails and SAR teams are not provided with adequate funding that is linked to visitor volume, the only possible outcome is a degradation in visitor experience and the destruction of the natural areas that the industry relies on.

The leading indicator is the sentiment of BC residents. In that regard, I have anecdotally observed a meaningful shift in the last three years. People that used to welcome and even encourage an increase in recreation tourism are frustrated at a government and an industry that is trying to get a free lunch. If meaningful changes are not made quickly, it will be hard to re-win their trust.

What do you think?

Happy Hiking,

Steve Jones

stevejoneshikes@gmail.com