Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Get your piece of Saskatchewan: privatizing provincial parks

Saskatchewan has some of the northernmost cottonwood trees on the continent (image courtesy of Wikimedia)
As summer winds down, we may find ourselves looking back on those too few weeks--sad they are ending but happy for the hours we got to spend in the wild and beautiful places all around us.

Thousands of us went to see our provincial parks, from Narrow Hills, Clearwater and La Ronge in the north to Cypress Hills and Moose Mountain in the south. Maybe you walked their trails, paddled their waters, or camped amid the beauty of their grassland valleys or lake-side spruce groves. And if you did, you likely saw lots of other people enjoying the park in their own way. All of this takes planning, work, and regulation to ensure that there will always be public land where we can encounter the world on more than human terms. If you stop for a moment to think about that, you can't help but feel some gratitude that we have a Parks Ministry full of people who go to work every day to sustain our parks and protected areas.

We can be thankful too that the Saskatchewan Party, and Premier Wall in particular, seems to be fond of our parks system--at least the small but increasing portion that is dedicated to cabin subdivisions, RV camping and other things that make nature nice and comfy for us--the service centres, boat launches, water systems, quad trails, picnic tables and barbecues, etc.

The Province has in recent years spent some money to build and fix up such facilities in the core areas of some parks, and has improved camping and access opportunities-- including $2 million for the development of a new, 68 full-service site campground at Greenwater Lake Provincial Park, and an automated campground registration system.

And people are responding--park usage data shows the parks are being used at record levels. But "visitor experience" and turnstile figures only speak to one half of the mandate and mission of our provincial parks. The other side, protection of ecologically and culturally important landscapes, appears to be losing out in decision after decision. The policy balance between visitation and recreation on the one hand and ecological management and protection on the other has always been a struggle for provincial governments of all political stripes, but I think we are seeing a strong tilt in recent years toward increasing access and opportunities for high-impact, resource-intensive kinds of recreation and camping in Saskatchewan parks.

It is happening at parks like Moose Mountain where ATV users are making more inroads each year, gaining access to trails that were until recently for non-motorized traffic only. Across the park system, well-connected, vocal organizations and private business interests seem to be able to persuade policy makers to ignore or circumvent ministry conservation regulations and practices when they conflict with the agenda of providing more subdivisions, more RV sites, and more opportunities for high-impact forms of recreation.

The imbalance in favour of exploitation and development gets particularly wonky when private business interests begin to drive park policy and planning. Last fall, the Parks Ministry announced that it had "struck a deal" with a private company to build a new seasonal camping area at Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park. Cactus Blume Campground Ltd., owned by John Bardahl (who also owns a home in the park) received a 25-year lease on a piece of the provincial park to run his own private campground business--125 sites large sites, as well as places for boat storage, a playground and laundry, plus electricity, sewage and water.

our public lands are being granted to private campgrounds for long-term camping of RVs

Now I have heard the sad tale that RV people have trouble finding campsites, and on a good day I might be sympathetic to their argument that they deserve more public land where they can park their rigs, store their quads and seadoos, and kick back in front of their big screen TVs for the summer--but does it have to be in a large grove of Plains Cottonwoods, one of the most ecologically significant portions of the park? And even if it had to be put in the cottonwoods, wouldn't it be easier to regulate its ecological impact if the Parks Ministry had built and managed the campground itself?

The stand of cottonwoods in question is one of the only riparian cottonwood ecosystems in Saskatchewan's entire network of parks and protected areas. All cottonwood populations along the South Saskatchewan River--among the most northerly cottonwood ecosystems on the continent--have already been placed at risk by Gardiner dam. Cottonwoods depend on the natural rise and fall of prairie rivers for their reproduction and renewal but the dam flooded out most of Saskatchewan's cottonwood flats fifty-some years ago. Water management for electricity has more or less precluded the kind of healthy fluctuation of water levels that cottonwoods require to stay healthy.

Knowing all of this--and knowing the regulations around siting facilities in sensitive areas--science and conservation staff within the Parks Ministry would have advised against allowing someone to build a campground for 125 RVs in one of Saskatchewan's only protected groves of Plains Cottonwoods.

But Saskatchewan Landing, the closest park to Premier Wall's home in Swift Current, seems to be the testing grounds for sweetheart privatization deals, and it would not be a wild guess if someone were to suggest that the private campground developer might be a Sask Party supporter.

Regardless of the owner's connections--and in that part of the country everyone knows and supports the Premier anyway--the Cactus Blume campground opened this summer and quickly filled with RVs owned by people holding freshly-signed multi-year leases on provincial land.

The Parks Ministry gave strict instructions to make sure that none of the sites encroached on the canopy drip line of the cottonwood trees--i.e. the ground and vegetation directly beneath the outer circumference of each cottonwood's branches was supposed to be left natural and not used by the leaseholding campers as part of their sites. That single restriction, however, has already been tossed aside, and campers this summer have been happily building decks and extending their site footprint well into the drip-line zone. Within a matter of weeks, the cottonwood grove has gone from a quiet natural area where any member of the public could walk and experience some prairie beauty, to the private tiki-lit domain of a few privileged and high-impact lease-holders.

These are good days for people who have the money and connections to get a piece of a provincial park--for those who can afford to lease a subdivision lot or a place for their boat and RV, and especially for those who are able to profit from building private campsites and subdivisions. They come to the Province with these proposals because they know that if they tried to do the same thing on private land they would face higher start up costs and much lower demand for their sites. For a very favourable fee the developer and his customers receive an exclusive kind of access to a piece of the public trust, including the ability to tie-in to water, sewer, roads, and other forms of publicly subsidized infrastructure.

There needs to be an open review of park privatization practices and a publicly accountable mechanism to ensure that carrying capacity guidelines and regulations--those in place and those yet to come--are actually enforced, even when someone fortunate enough to be on the inside of the governing party's circle of friends receives a handshake promise.
the hills at Sask Landing (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)


  1. Thank you for writing this Trevor. I stayed at sask landing two summers ago, i really enjoyed it and was hoping to make it back this year. This is really dissapointing to find out about.

    1. Thanks. It is still a great park--if you go, take a few photos of the new campground and send them to me....

  2. The author sure makes a lot of assumptions. Does he know John's political affiliation? Did they pick the landing to try this because it's close to the premier's home riding? Has even been to see these campsites? He makes the accusation that people are building decks under the drip zone of these trees. That is not correct. There are no decks or campers located in the drip zone of any of these cotton poplars.
    I believe it was under the NDP that a 18 hole golf course and marina were built in this park. Wouldn't that have done more damage than building campsites?
    If you were to go out and look at the area, you will notice that these trees were all planted. You can see the rows. You can see were they ran a tiller through many times. The ground is still raised were the tiller pushed the dirt in between the tree rows.
    I have friends who did this work and cut the grass in this area for many years. Which they haven't done in probably 20 years.
    The trees were all in bad shape and needed lots of pruning. There were many that had fallen over due to lack of care.
    I don't know of a single person who was walking or utilizing this area previously.
    Using the logic of the author, there would be no park there at all.
    I agree that these areas need to be governed and their natural beauty needs to be protected, but it also needs to be accessible for people to enjoy.
    In my opinion these poplar trees will probably flourish now that someone is actually caring for them.

    1. Thanks for writing and adding a perspective from the park. You are right I have not seen the new campground in person but I have first hand accounts from reliable people who have and they are also people who know what natural cottonwood landscape looks like so I was surprised to read your statement that no one has put anything under the drip lines of the cottonwoods. As for all the trees being planted....again that is not what I have been told. I will say that cottonwoods almost always look like they are falling down and could use some pruning--that is their natural pattern of growth and maturation. The danger is that they actually self-prune and will drop a one-ton limb at the slightest provocation. Two people were killed by a cottonwood in Nebraska this summer--read this: http://kdvr.com/2016/07/05/falling-cottonwood-tree-at-nebraska-lake-kills-2-coloradans/

  3. Well said--you made many of the other points I had to edit from my post to prevent it from becoming a treatise. The degradation has been going on for years, long before the current government came in but this is a new level of abuse of our parks. Thanks for writing.

  4. The following anonymous comment was accidentally deleted:

    This article really strikes home. My family built a small cabin in Duck Mountain Provincial Park in its early years where there were more stringent limits on development. Green space was much more protected. Cabins were cabins, not four-season mansions. It was accessible and appreciated by people of all income levels. While I grew up, I saw the lake become filled with noise in the summer, the lake got turbid, and the shoreline became dominated by atrocious monuments to wealth. I've seen my neighbours turn from friendly lake people to cold-shoulder suburbanites who use their vacation home for all of three weeks per year. In that time, the quality of park services to the public fell drastically. There used to be several trails - now all grown in and impassible. No organised events or activities for all ages, aside from the usual interpretive programming. The business that runs the general store, cabin/boat rentals and campground store is a joke (but that's another story.) The park favours the rich, through and through. It has lost its mandate to the public.

    And that investment in Greenwater Prov. Park for new sites? I suggest everyone who applauds it actually go and make a visit. The area was completely logged. It's basically a gravel pit. It will take at least 30 years before anything resembling greenspace or privacy returns there. How is this not being questioned? (My response is shown just above.)

  5. From my understanding, Sask. Parks didn't want this private campground for various reasons and originally were going to deny its proposal but got overruled from above. I would love to see some investigative journalism into that.

  6. We are the owners of Cactus Blume Campground in this park. We find it unbelievable you write as if you understand the process to develope in a park. It is very obvious that not only have you never developed in any park but knowledge of how business runs is also lacking!
    We had nothing given to us nor are we card carrying Sask Party members. We worked for 3 years on this project before the Government decided it could indeed proceed. We then had to do a submission that was tendered out by the Government. Not one single person applied for this project! We then applied after the tender had closed as it was a no bid tender at that point. There are then permit after permit required to get this project opporational. We had to work with Sask Water Authirity, Shireline Protection Agency, Water Rights, Department of Health etc etc. We now have exactly 100 permits- yes that is right. We required 68 for sewage alone. Each of those permits were $30 each. Two from water securit are $259 each once again etc etc
    If. The only way it looks locative is to now drive through the campground and see the unbelievable job everyone did on their lot
    Believe what you may but the trees are planted. I helped plant them in fact as a student in mid 60's. We have about 10% of our lots with cotton poplars on them. All potential lessee had a list of those lots and were well informed no building can happen on the drip zone. I assure you that non has!
    As you know cotton poplars grow very close to the shoreline. When this was a river the river was 1/2 mile from this plantation and 25 feet lower! Mother Nature is very good but unfortunately not even she can grow native poplar spaced exactly 10' apart and in rows 10' apart! Come see and I will show you
    How dare you sit in an arm chair in Regina and bad mouth myself, my wife, the Government and Department Staff. There is no conspiracy theory and no politics involved in this project there is nothing under the table. Our campground is not for the elite, in fact our nighty cost to campers is less than park full service fees.
    It appears that you have more of an issue with private development than anything else. If you think private development is so rosy come wirk with me for a day. I am 65 years old and my day starts at 4:30 am cleaning the toilets and finished late into the evening. During the construction we wrote our tenders, accepted the tenders we general manager, secretary, book keeper etc!
    You noted we live in the Park. We do live here and once again it was a lottery draw in which we were successful The draw was a public draw that you could have applied for
    We live this park and I grew up just a few miles from here. I invite you to come visit this park and our campground. Talk to the families that are enjoying themselves and watch the kids play. It is a glorious site to behold!! Yes people, unlike yourself, actually do come and see this park!
    Until you have walked a mile in my shoes keep your blog to topics you are knowledgable about not just a lot of the cuff nonsense that really isn't worth the time to read

  7. Thanks for writing, John. Your points are as you can imagine in direct opposition to people I originally heard the complaints from. I will have to do some more investigating and see what I can find out.

  8. Yes, that is what I have been told too--I am doing some digging.

  9. I hope when you find others jumped to untrue assumptions and you reported untrue facts you will be big enough to admit it.

    1. yep--I will post again once I get confirmation either way.

  10. 'Unknown' says that the cottonwood trees needed pruning - what is this? Are we perhaps talking about somebody's garden? In a park close to where I live South of Vancouver, the local authority went through a year or so ago and chopped out everything that a woodpecker had looked at, creating all sorts of problems of instability with other trees - especially when the wind blows in what is essentially a naturally regenerating woodland... if only it could be left to do so. I do appreciate that there is a need for safety, but there are too many trees now being viewed purely from the standpoint of an arborist when what is really required is a more ecological approach. We simply need more trees to age, rot, and where possible, fall over. Not everywhere needs to be 'garden' tidy'. Cottonwoods are programmed to drop limbs and fall over at some point - stay out from under them... it's just common sense. If this is a recreational area that has been planted out for that purpose, then cottonwoods are the wrong tree in the first place. No amount of pruning will save you from an old cottonwood. The word Park is also confusing because the term is so often used to describe both wilderness and a heavily managed garden - essentially very different places. And one final point: planting trees doesn't preclude trees developing naturally, many now forests and woodlands that now appear quite natural, started out by being planted by somebody in places where forests, at some time in the past, were completely cleared. Ref: Is Every Rotten Tree in the Forest Really Out to Get You? stephenbolwell.com

  11. Thanks for making those points, Stephen. The cottonwoods in question are naturally occurring and were not planted. The planted trees are in a different part of the campground and no one is questioning how they are treated. But you put your finger on an issue here: if the leaseholders continue to set up under the cottonwoods they will over time compact the soil around the roots, and that will sooner or later lead to trees dying back and dropping one-ton limbs or blowing over in a storm. Suddenly the trees become a risk management issue for Parks management and they will instruct staff to cut down any "dangerous" trees.

  12. I am still waiting for your visit to this park. You are confused as to these trees. They all were planted! They were part of a Government project in the mid 1960's. All the poplar are planted all in rows and all evenly spaced between trees. The park paved a parking lot up against some cotton poplar 40 years or more ago at the beach. These trees are doing very well thank you
    As before I welcome you to our campground to put all doubts to bed with respect to these trees. It gets old quick to have people who have never been here, never seen these trees or even have the interest too, then blog as if they are even the least bit knowledgeable.
    Cactus Blume owner- John Bardahl


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