Protecting BC Provincial Parks

The incredible range of BC Parks reflects an equally diverse historical origin. Some recent developments suggest this magnificent heritage could be chipped away if we don’t pay attention.

by Maggie Paquet

My introduction to BC Parks came about one swelteringsummer afternoon about 35 years ago. Acting on a rumour, I drove to the campground at Goldstream Provincial Park. Getting direction from park staff, I hiked up a trail to an innocent-looking side branch and went carefully down the steep slope to the river. Amazement greeted me! A waterfall plunged into a deep green bowl lined with shrubs, flowers, and ferns, and tow­ered over by huge Douglas-firs and red cedars. The water was cold and sublimely refreshing. There were a few people there, but it was peace­ful. I went back to the swimming hole on hot days throughout that summer and the next. I explored the rest of that remarkable park on Victoria’s doorstep, including attending some of the evening ‘naturalist talks’ in the park’s amphitheatre. I did some research on its history. I wanted to know how and why this precious place came to be dedicated to the public. Ul­timately, I was inspired to look into this “BC Parks thing.”

What I learned motivated me to go exploring around the province at every opportunity. Over the years, I visited other family camping parks – Alice Lake near Squamish, Cultus Lake near Chilliwack, Wasa Lake near Cranbrook, Charlie Lake near Fort St. John, and Lakelse Lake near Ter­race. I combed incredible ocean beach parks, such as Rath­trevor near Parksville, and French Beach west of Sooke. I went to parks that offered both frontcountry camping and incredible backcountry experiences, such as Manning, off Hwy 3 past Hope, and Golden Ears, in the Coast Moun­tains north of the Fraser River. I enjoyed tiny peaceful oases no larger than a few picnic tables and a fire grate, such as Memory Is­land in the middle of Shawnigan Lake. I wandered through parks that celebrate settlement history, such as Fort Steele in the East Kootenay, and Cottonwood River and Barkerville in the Cariboo. I marvelled at magnificent waterfalls, such as the 137-metre-high Helmcken Falls in Wells Gray, and danced in the spray on the big rocks over which the Bijoux Falls tumble in the Pine Pass northeast of Prince George. I fished for steelhead (and caught one!) along the banks of the Quinsam River in the campground part of Elk Falls park near Campbell River. Eventually, I even made it into two spectacular wilderness parks: the Stikine River RA (now a class A park) in BC’s rugged and remote northwest, and Strathcona – BC’s very first provincial park – in the north-central part of Vancou­ver Island.

Years later, while researching my books on BC Parks, I discovered even more about provincial parks that con­vinced me we had something special. For example:

• The massive Lloyd George Icefield in the heart of Kwa­dacha, southwest of Fort Nelson and east of the Rocky Mountain Trench, is the largest icefield in the Rockies north of the 54th parallel.

• Spatsizi and the newer Muskwa-Kechika area parks protect habitat for Stone’s sheep, nearly all of the world’s population of which occur in northern BC.

• Volcanics are a major feature of some parks, including Wells Gray, Mt. Edziza, Mt. Seymour, and Garibaldi.

• Khutzeymateen is Canada's only grizzly bear sanctu­ary and is home to about 50 grizzlies.

• Liard River Hot Springs are ranked in the top five of all North American hot springs.

• Strathcona Park contains the 440 m Della Falls, Cana­da's highest and one of the ten highest falls in the world.

• Inside the 116-km parallelogram-shaped chain of lakes, rivers, creeks, and portages in Bowron Lake Park are sedimentary rocks that contain fossil trilobites and primitive corals.

What all this says is that British Columbia, as a juris­diction, has one of the largest and, along with ecological re­serves, most ecologically varied park systems in the world. It is definitely something of which we can all be very proud. But, like liberty, the price of all this grandeur and diversity is eternal vigilance (and we’re lucky to have a lot of “park patriots” in our province). Before I get into that topic, how­ever, let’s have a brief history of how we got this still great park system.

BC Parks History

There have been three primary waves of incentives to establish BC`s parks. The earliest was to provide mountain wilderness parks largely visited by adventurers and wealthy tourists with time and money to spare. Concurrent with commercial tourism promotion was an expansionist desire by governments to entice settlers into new areas. To facili­tate this, national and provincial governments ceded long tracts of Crown lands to accommodate building railroads.

In BC, the first park was Strathcona and the railway was the E & N. On March 1st 1911, Strathcona Provincial Park was legislated with passage of the Strathcona Park Act. While the original Act clearly intended to protect the park from mining, logging, and similar industrial development, both mining claims and timber holdings had been granted prior to the park’s establishment, and existing rights and interests were exempted from the Act. In 1918, the Act was amended to open the park to the “location, acquisition and occupation of mineral claims under the Mineral Act.

And so it began – from the very earliest days of our provincial parks system – this seesaw behaviour of gov­ernment, shifting back and forth from protecting lands for recreation and conservation on one hand, to allowing – en­couraging even – industrial uses on the other.

Strathcona was soon followed in 1913, when BC’s sec­ond park was established with the Mount Robson Park Act. Both Strathcona and Mt. Robson were adjacent to railway land grants. Mt. Assiniboine in the Rockies and Kokanee Glacier in the Selkirks were both established in 1922, and Garibaldi in 1927. By 1930, 13 provincial parks had been created, and at least another 50 areas had been reserved “for the pleasure and recreation of the public.”

Not all early parks catered to wilderness enthusiasts. John Dean Park on Mt. Newton in Central Saanich was es­tablished in 1921 as a day use park and to protect a small bit of old-growth Douglas-fir and Garry oak-wildflower meadow. Unlike previous parks, this was the first donation of private land for the specific purpose of park designation.

Up until the Depression, parks were added and man­aged haphazardly. A Forest Service public works program was created in 1929. For nearly the next three decades, parks were the responsibility of the Forest Service. In 1957, the Department of Recreation and Conservation was cre­ated, including an independent Parks Branch. A philosophy of establishing, operating, and managing provincial parks became more clearly defined.

The next wave peaked in the 1950s and ’60s. This was a time of road-building to meet the greater mobility of post-war peregrinations; matching it was a major ex­pansion of the provincial park system. Destination camp­ground parks to serve the newly mobile middle and working classes cropped up along equally newly built roads all across the province. These parks featured family-oriented campgrounds, expanded facilities, such as picnic tables, potable water, outhouses (even showers and flush toilets in some), fire grates and the provision of firewood, and – what became hugely popular – BC Parks’ famous interpretation programmes. The big parks had wardens and on-site staff to assist visitors… oh, and collect camping fees.

A revised Park Act was passed in 1965. It provided a detailed classification of provincial parks, management guidelines, and increased protection, including restrictions on land uses and resource extraction. Conservation, while a partial rationale for a few earlier parks, was becoming an important reason for many of the newer parks.

Setting aside large areas for conservation and to man­age parks for ecological integrity and wilderness preserva­tion was becoming an important goal, both for the public and BC Parks managers, and represents the third wave.

Parks were starting to be seen as something other than simply places for the public to visit for sport and refresh­ment, or places to take the kids so they could blow off steam and maybe learn something about “nature.” Rather, parks were beginning to be recognized as sanctuaries for biological diversity, as gene pools, as sources for pure wa­ter, as places of beauty in their own right, and as a source for something intangible that is increasingly required, but equally increasingly difficult to obtain, in our crowded and cluttered lives: solitude, spiritual renewal. During the 1970s, large remote wilderness parks were established, including Cape Scott, Naikoon, Spatsizi Wilderness, Mt. Edziza, Purcell Wilderness, and Desolation Sound.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, a number of public consultation processes took place over nearly every corner of the province, including the Wilderness Advisory Com­mittee, Protected Areas Strategy, Commission on Resourc­es and Environment, and numerous Land and Resource Management Planning (LRMP) processes. One of the most important recommendations of the Wilderness Advisory Committee was its advice to government stressing the need for a clear and consistent wilderness policy with explicit management guidelines.

There were some highly controversial goings on dur­ing these times, including confrontations with logging and mining interests, such as what occurred in Clayoquot Sound, which resulted in the largest mass arrests in BC history. Nonetheless, these very public processes resulted in significant additions to the parks system, such as Val­halla, Akamina-Kishinena, Kakwa, Carmanah-Walbran, Tatshenshini-Alsek, Stikine River. These were followed in the next decade by large protected areas, often co-managed with First Nations, like those in the Muskwa-Kechika and the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary.

The reality of First Nations aboriginal and territorial rights and ongoing treaty negotiations asserted itself into the designation and management of new and existing parks and conservancies. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation declared Meares Island in Clayoquot Sound to be a Tribal Park. In the Stein Valley, the Lytton and Mt. Currie First Nations put the BC gov­ernment on notice that there would be no industrial activ­ity and no compromises in the Stein. Many of the newer protected areas and conservancies, including the Stein Val­ley Nlaka’pamux Heritage, Ts'il?os, and Anhluut'ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga'asanskwhl Nisga'a (Memorial Lava Bed), as well as the Great Bear Rainforest, have come into being as a direct result of negotiations with First Nations communities for co-management and other opportunities, as well as protections for traditional livelihoods and values.

Information about endangered spaces and endangered species was hitting the news on a regular basis. Climate change, and its effects on future conditions both in and out of parks, was also becoming a concern.

The Park Amendment Act 1995 increased the total min­imum area of the province to be designated as protected park land from 2,550,000 hectares to 7,300,000 hectares, which was to be further increased to 10,000,000 hectares by January 1, 2000. As of 2010, BC had 989 parks and protected areas in over 13 million hectares, accounting for over 14% of British Columbia’s land base.

Disturbing trends and conditions

While all these additions were generally welcomed by the public, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of confusing quantity for quality. While public consultations had helped establish better rationales for parks and park boundaries, and added many important areas to the system, I think most would agree that the quality of management and programmes has declined in recent years. Many of the new parks (and a lot of older ones) do not have management plans. There have been severe cutbacks in both office and field staff throughout the system.

One of the biggest losses is the “institutional memory” of many of the former public servants who ensured the high standards BC Parks was once famous for.

As BC Parks entered the new millennium, it was becoming apparent that the comparatively rational days of yesteryear had morphed into the days of nickel-and-diming every aspect of park creation and management, including the unpopular move to increase the size of parking lots at the expense of park lands and install parking meters in a number of parks.

Gone are the days of widespread public consultations on park establishment. Gone are adequate numbers of park wardens to assist visitors and protect park resources. Gone too are the outstanding naturalist programmes, which provided an important public education service not available anywhere else. Contracting out most park services – and stretching them beyond effectiveness – has not resulted in an improved level of service to the public.

A highly disturbing trend has been changing parks and protected areas legislation over established areas to remove land and re-draw boundaries to allow for industrial uses, often with little or no public consultation. Many hard-fought battles involving all sectors of society over many years, such as through LRMP processes, have been turned around with no recourse and little respect for the previous work. The effects of increased roads, pipelines, and transmission lines on wildlife and habitats to allow for industrial developments in and adjacent to protected areas are a major concern. Just a few examples of this include:

• removal of over 1,000 ha from Graham-Laurier Park in the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area to allow for 11 kms of a road or pipeline through the park;
• legislative changes to allow for resort development and directional drilling for oil and gas immediately adjacent to parks;
• reduction of 20% of South Chilcotin Mountains (Spruce Lake) park to allow for mining and tourism in the areas removed;
• removal (allegedly temporary) of lands in Mt. Robson park to run an oil pipeline through it;
• the massive number of IPPs and “run-of-river” projects that will affect conditions inside parks and fish and wildlife outside parks

Time to re-organize and re-focus?

Environmental groups like Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Committee have remained focused on issues to do with parks, but likely the rest of us haven’t; not so much, anyway. It may be time to have a close look at BC Parks to see what’s needed to ensure the system can deliver the promise that many of us felt 20-30 years ago. Maybe it has been a case of “out of sight, out of mind” for much of the public that has allowed some of the reversals in recent years. It’s never wise to take anything for granted. The time may be ripe for “parks patriots” to regroup.


Maggie Paquet, biologist, writer, and editor, is the author of Parks of British Columbia & the Yukon, The BC Parks Explorer, and numerous articles about wilderness, parks, and the BC environment.

[From WS Summer 2010]


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