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September 4, 2006

Executive Retreats Part of Park Commercialization

"For those who prefer a tent, BC Parks does provide more than 11,000 campsites. However, not everyone who wants to enjoy a parks experience is able to sleep on the ground in a tent. That's why the provincial government requested proposals last month to build and operate fixed-roof accommodations in a handful of selected parks."
Barry Penner, Minister of the Environment, in opinion column published in the Vancouver Sun, September 4, 2006.

If the reason for commercializing our parks is for folks like me who are no longer up to sleeping in a pup tent, why does the request for proposals (RFP) for Fintry Provincial Park call for a 100 bed land based resort, restaurant and gift shop together with a 20-30 boat overnight and the ability to cater to weddings and executive retreats? Are we to believe that the Okanagan is so short of resorts and tourist facilities that it is necessary to commercialize our parks to meet the demand?

The most likely explanation for the Campbell government's policy was indicated by Penner in his Vancouver Sun column when he wrote: "Operators will have to pay annual fees to government for these permits. All of this revenue will stay within the BC Parks system to help fund services and programs." Notwithstanding Penner's assurances, it is very difficult to obtain any information on the budget and expenditures for B.C. Parks. Speaking in the Legislature during estimates debate on April 5, 2006, Penner said: "In fiscal 2006-2007 the total budget for the environmental stewardship division of the Ministry of Environment is $69.987 million. That budget covers fish and wildlife branch, parks branch, protected areas and ecosystems - something we were just talking about a moment ago in terms of species at risk. The budget in terms of B.C. Parks itself would be approximately $30 million." According to the 2002-2003 Service Plan for the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, before the Campbell cuts in February 2002, the 2001-2002 budget for environmental stewardship was $83.545 million (plus $2 million for the Grizzly Bear program). It looks like the funding envelope which includes parks is still 16% lower than it was in 2001. Apart from ideology, the commercialization of B.C.'s Parks appears to be an attempt to compensate for some of the Campbell cuts.

In early August commercialization schemes were set out for Cape Scott, Mount Robson, Elk Lakes, Wells Gray ,Mount Assiniboine and Fintry provincial parks. Additional RFPs for commercialization were issued at the end of August for:

  • Silver Star (Near Vernon and Silver Star Mountain Resort.)
  • Myra Bellevue (The protected area is southeast of Kelowna.)
  • Nancy Greene (A 20-min drive from Castlegar or Rossland.)
  • Maxhamish Lake (There is no road access and the closest community is Fort Nelson, 125 km to the south. Joe Sixpack isn't going to be the one flying into a new resort in that park and protected area.)
  • Foch-Giltoyees (Near Kitimat.)
  • Golden Ears (Easily accessible as it is just 11 km north of Maple Ridge.)

The Silver Star RFP provides for an "initial term of up to 30 years" for a "a high quality ski-in ski-out facility" which would be "capable of accommodating approximately 30-45 guests in 5-15 rooms, and should also include common areas and associated food and beverage services". That concept is a long way from Penner's justification of an alternative for folks who don't want to stay in tents. That is straightforward commercialization of our parks that has nothing to do with the changing demographics that the government claims is the reason for expanding "fixed-roof accommodations".

Like the RFP for Fintry, executive retreats and weddings are part of the suggested uses for the commercialization of both Golden Ears in the Lower Mainland and of Myra Bellevue, again competing with existing facilities in the Okanagan. That's low end on the spending scale compared to the RFP for Maxhamish which states: "It is expected that the proposed lodge at Maxhamish Lake would cater primarily to fly-in guests wanting to fish on one of British Columbia's most productive lakes for trophy walleye and pike." That sounds like converting a wilderness area to a playground for well-healed U.S. tourists, not like an alternative for those who can't handle tents. The RFP for Foch-Giltoyees also put the lie to Penner's column when it said that: "The anticipated market to be served by the new park facilities is that of adventure tourists."

Penner's Vancouver Sun column concluded by discussing the process which led to the RFPs, including meeting five times in 2004 and 2005 with a "sounding board" from various organizations. It would be interesting to hear the reaction to the government's actual RFPs from those who participated on the sounding board. Before alienating rights in our parks for generations to come, the Campbell government needs to slow down and listen to all British Columbians. The Campbell government drove a million visitors a year out of B.C.'s Parks through its ill advised parking fees; it should slow down before it makes an even bigger mistake.

August 14, 2006

Park Commercialization: An Initial Term of up to 30 Years!

On August 10th the Ministry of the Environment posted six of its requests for proposals (RFPs) for "fixed-roof accommodation" to the BC Bid® website. Six more will follow on August 31st. Four in the first batch of requests state that the "initial term" will be "up to 30 years" suggesting that there could be subsequent terms. The exceptions are the Elk Lakes where the RFP calls for a 10 year term, and Mt Assiniboine which involves a 20 year term. The Elk Lakes proposal also differs in that it is essentially the privatization of the operation of the entire park. The Elk Lakes RFP states:

"The duties of the Permittee will include but not be limited to the following:
  • Operating a year round reservation system for the Cabin;
  • Park user fee collection;
  • Ongoing and regular maintenance and improvement of the Facilities (notwithstanding this duty, BC Parks will remain responsible for the funding of major repair projects, greater than $1,000, that have the prior written approval of BC Parks);
  • Upgrading the water, toilets, and grey water systems;
  • Providing potable water to the Cabin and Campground users;
  • Maintaining and submitting to BC Parks financial reports and attendance statistics; and,
  • May include the provision of appropriate recreational services."

The RFP states that: "The general expectation is for the successful Proponent to establish and manage a successful business enterprise … with a fair return to the Province for this opportunity. "

Like the Elk Lakes RFP, the Mt Assiniboine RFP essentially calls for the privatization of the park's operation: "The business opportunity encompasses the restoration, operation, maintenance, and operation of the Lodge as well as the associated financing, and the operation, maintenance and management of all visitor services and accommodation facilities in the Core Area of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park."

The other four RFPs range from building a series of huts in Cape Scott Provincial Park to building a 100 bed land based resort, restaurant and gift shop together with a 20-30 boat overnight (7 - 14 day stay) docking facility at Fintry Provincial Park.

The Cape Scott RFP recognized the inherit conflict between park values and operating a successful business within a park when it said: "The Ministry is interested in descriptions of likely operating cycles that address matters such as balancing the protection of natural values of the Cape Scott Provincial Park with the need for facilities or recreational features or services needed in order to make the business successful in meeting the goals of this Project."

The four 30 year RFPs all require proponents to state their marketing plans: "Each Proponent should describe who is going to be their primary, secondary and tertiary market, potential size and $ value of each target market, promotional means and the use of media."

The way some reporters and columnists have promoted the government's park commercialization scheme, it looks like "the use of the media" is well underway. Whether we are talking about 100 bed resorts that, according to the RFP, might cater to weddings and executive retreats, or wilderness huts, the "fixed-roof accommodation" policy is about privatizing portions of BC's parks while earning a return for the Province. The Campbell government is acting as a developer out to use our parks to make a profit while competing with tourism operators in adjacent communities. Why should a situation be created where the protection of natural values has to be "balanced" against commercial interests who hold park use permits?

August 7, 2006

Commercializing Our Parks

"Even though Cape Scott is a wilderness park, a variety of tourist facilities are located nearby in Port Hardy, Port McNeill, Holberg and Port Alice. Accommodation in these communities is limited, so reservations are recommended. Consult the Accommodation and Campground Directory published by Tourism British Columbia for names, addresses and other pertinent information."
Ministry of the Environment, BC Parks website on Cape Scott

The Tourism British Columbia Accommodation Guide lists 11 facilities (motels, campgrounds, bed and breakfasts) for Port McNeil, including the 70 room Haida Way Motor Inn, and another 11 facilities for Port Hardy, including the 49 room Thunderbird Inn. Why does the Campbell government feel that it needs to disrupt a "wilderness park" by adding a new "fixed roof accommodation" (e.g. hotels or lodges) inside the park? If accommodation is "limited", why doesn't the government encourage operators outside the park to expand their capacity?

Cape Scott is one of six provincial parks or protected areas where, on August 10th, the provincial government will be issuing requests for proposals for accommodation. The others are:

  • Mount Robson (The closest communities to this park are Valemount, Tete Jaune Cache and McBride.)
  • Elk Lakes (About a two hour drive north of Sparwood.)
  • Wells Gray (Off Hwy #5 at Clearwater, which has 24 facilities listed in the accommodation guide, or turn off Hwy 97 at 100 Mile House, which has 11 facilities in the guide. Murtle Lake is accessed off highway 5 at Blue River, which has 5 facilities in the guide.)
  • Mount Assiniboine (Adjacent to Yoho National park, 48 km southwest of Banff.)
  • Fintry (Located just 34 km north of Kelowna or 49 km south of Vernon; there is an abundance of accommodation outside the park.)

On August 31st another half dozen parks will be added to the list with additional requests for proposals:

  • Silver Star (Near Vernon and Silver Star Mountain Resort.)
  • Myra Bellevue (The protected area is southeast of Kelowna.)
  • Nancy Greene (A 20-min drive from Castlegar or Rossland.)
  • Maxhamish Lake (There is no road access and the closest community is Fort Nelson, 125 km to the south. Joe Sixpack isn't going to be the one flying into a new resort in that park and protected area.)
  • Foch-Giltoyees (Near Kitimat.)
  • Golden Ears (Easily accessible as it is just 11 km north of Maple Ridge.)

For each of those parks you can search Tourism British Columbia's Accommodation Guide to see the facilities that currently are available outside of the park boundaries. Has the Campbell government suddenly decided that those who operate facilities near, but outside, the parks need competition from the government? The new facilities would be run by private operators but within park boundaries, not only commercializing the park, but giving those operators an unfair advantage with respect to existing facilities located outside park boundaries. How much of the drive to commercialize our parks is a hangover from the Campbell cuts which made bureaucrats anxious to find new sources of revenue despite consequences for the environment?

The government's tourism website features a page on its "resort development branch" and another on its "resort strategy" which says BC's 700 resorts and lodges employ 26,000 people. Nothing in the government's documents on resorts talks about government making parks available to selected developers to compete with resorts located outside our provincial parks.

Opening our parks for commercial development could damage the parks and worry neighbouring facilities in that they will be put at an unfair competitive disadvantage. The government needs to cancel its requests for proposals and engage in public consultation, both with those who operate accommodation facilities near provincial parks and with the public who value our parks, even if they never visit them, and only think of them as places that protect wildlife. Only in British Columbia under the Campbell government does one find a Ministry of the Environment that acts as a developer in provincial parks while competing with private operators.


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