March 2019: Stakeholders are confused about the decision to leave BC Parks underfunded
Across the province, many individuals and organizations have been advocating for appropriate levels of funding for BC Parks and BC Recreation Sites and Trails. As a reference point, BC Parks receives less than 10% of the funding per hectare that the park system in Alberta receives.
There was a lot of optimism heading into the 2019 budget. The case for increased investment in parks is very strong whether you care about the economy, the environment, or simply satisfying voters. At the same time, the risks of continuing to leave the system underfunded are significant and the deferred costs grow by the year. Most importantly, we are at a point in time when there is widespread consensus on the need to increase funding and we have a governing party that ran on that platform. Given all of that, the decision to flatline BC Parks funding in the 2019 budget has left stakeholders confused.
*Note that I sometimes refer only to BC Parks. However, BC Recreation Sites and Trails is an equally important agency that works in close collaboration with BC Parks and it is underfunded to an even greater degree. Any increase in funding to BC Parks should be matched with an increase in funding to BC Recreation Sites and Trails.
Here is a summary of the consensus on the need to increase funding for BC Parks:
1) The tourism industry wants to see increased investment in BC Parks and BC Recreation Sites and Trails
The tourism industry is increasingly concerned about the lack of investments in BC Parks and BC Recreation Sites and Trails and the impact that will have on the ability of the industry to grow. Destination BC has a target to grow industry revenue at 5%/year through to 2020/21 from a base of $18.4 Billion in 2017/18.
The Ministry of Tourism recently released their three year strategic framework and a key element is the need to invest in parks and recreation:
Ensure the long-term sustainability of B.C.’s outdoor recreation experiences including BC Parks and provincial recreation sites and trails.
we will monitor, track and report publicly on the following key indicators which will demonstrate progress against our strategic tourism framework:
RESPECTING NATURE AND THE ENVIRONMENT
• Investments in recreation and parks
An example of how Destination BC is voicing the concerns of the industry can be found in the Destination Development Strategy for the Sunshine Coast which states:
2) Municipalities want to see increased funding
At their 2018 convention, Union of BC Municipalities brought forward and passed two resolutions asking for increased funding to be dedicated to BC Parks and BC Recreation Sites and Trails.
Source: 2018 UBCM Resolutions
3) Government staff want to see increased funding
Although the majority of internal government communications remain confidential, Freedom of Information (FOI) requests have revealed glimpses into the desperation facing BC Parks.
Here are two excerpts from recent FOI requests related to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park:
4) The British Columbia Government Employees Union wants to see increased funding
BCGEU has been campaigning for increased funding for BC Parks for many years and it was a part of one of their top four requests in their submission to the 2019 budget consultation.
5) The office of the Auditor General has identified issues
In 2010, the Auditor General completed a report that identified many issues. The press release stated:
“ Key findings included: while the ministry had a clear goal, its plans were incomplete or dated; conservation policies are not being consistently upheld; and little action has been taken to ensure conservation. As well, the ministry is not reporting publicly on its progress.”
Commenting on that report in 2017, The Vancouver Sun noted:
What Davis Lake does share with scores of provincial parks is that it lacks a current management plan, an issue raised in a report by the office of the Auditor General of B.C. in 2010.
Additional quotes from that article include:
There are no signs to even indicate that this is a provincial park, or to suggest that the province has any presence here. The place gives all the indications of a park utterly abandoned, left to those who would destroy it bit by bit without any thought to its ecological value.
The agency is quick to concede Davis Lake’s failings, and admits that park employees are reluctant to even visit the place because of the gunfire.
6) The BC Public supports BC Parks
Parks are a source of pride for British Columbians and are universally loved by people who reside in urban and rural areas across the province. BC Parks performed a study in 2005 and the levels of support for the system were extremely high.
Nearly all respondents indicated strong support for the Provincial Park system; 9 out of 10 respondents (88%) said that it is “very important” that there are provincial parks in BC, and most of the remainder (7.0%) said it was “important”. The mean score out of a possible 5 (where every respondent would indicate that the attribute was “very important”) was 4.80.
Source: BC Parks Household Survey 2005
In recent years, mainstream and social media have been flooded with stories of public frustration about the declining state of the system and it is hard to imagine that any sizable portion of the public would be displeased about a modest increase in funding.
7) The opposition and a government committee recommended increased funding
Opposition MLA Jordan Sturdy recently called for funding to be doubled which is reasonably close to the $100m that some advocates suggest is appropriate.
More formally, The Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services made a very clear recommendation for increased funding in their Report on the Budget 2019 Consultation:
8) Investing in BC Parks was a part of the NDP campaign
The 2017 NDP campaign materials discussed increased funding.
9) The Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy was formerly an advocate for increased funding for BC Parks
In his previous role as the Executive Director at the Sierra Club B.C., the Honourable George Heyman was an advocate for increased funding for parks.
10) The money exists
We need to put the required funding in perspective. In the 2019 budget, $41.6 m was set aside for BC Parks. An increase of the funding by 50% would be transformational for BC Parks without even showing up as a rounding error if it were taken from a handful of other initiatives.
Consider the magnitude of the numbers in the budget:
“Over the next three years, Budget 2019 commits $20.1 billion to infrastructure, $1.3 billion for childcare and more than $900 million on the CleanBC program announced late last year. Government also announced a revenue sharing agreement that will deliver approximately $3 billion in total to all First Nations communities over the next 25 years — the largest such agreement in B.C. history.”
“This fiscal year, the province is forecasting a surplus of $274 million, followed by surpluses of $287 million and $585 million in 2020 and 2021, respectively.”
“The spending in Budget 2019 follows a $7-billion commitment over 10 years to housing affordability measures and a $1.5-billion commitment to the province’s healthcare system made in Budget 2018.”
It’s also important to note that an investment in BC Parks generates meaningful economic activity which leads to increased tax revenue. Research by BC Parks in 2011 showed that: “every one dollar invested in the protected areas system generates $8.42 in visitor spending on food, entertainment, transportation and other goods and services.” (Source: BC Parks Reports and Surveys)
Despite the strong arguments and unanimous support for increased funding for BC Parks, the 2019/20 budget did not include any meaningful increase in funding over 2018/19. In fact, the increase from $40,478,000 to $41,567,000 is almost entirely eliminated by the impact of inflation.
When pressured on the topic, this government has referred to the implementation of a relatively minor multi-year program to build additional front-country campsites that had been announced by the previous government and was already included in the base-case numbers coming into the 2019 consultations.
In response to questions about investing in parks further, the province points to a program launched by the B.C Liberals that will see 1900 new campsites built over 5 years; 350 are already in service.
Beyond that, the government has essentially gone silent on the mere existence of BC Parks:
- The word “parks” was not used a single time in the main budget document. For comparison, “housing” was mentioned 107 times and “school” was mentioned 84 times. (2019 Budget and Fiscal Plan)
- MLA Andrew Weaver’s response to the budget comes in at just shy of 18,000 words and doesn’t use the word “park” or “parks” once. (Andrew Weaver’s Response to the 2019 Budget)
- The Ministry Plan is now just 10 pages and no longer has a metric that is directly related to the park system. The 2017 and 2018 plans were each 27 pages long and had a metric related to the performance of the park system. (2019 Ministry Plan)
- BC Parks has not released an annual report since the 2015/2016! The last datapoint we have for the performance of the parks system is March 31st, 2016; almost three full years ago.
When you add up all of the above, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Without understanding why the government is hesitating, it is unclear how to move the discussion forward.