Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Saskatchewan Parks—are we taking care of the land or taking care of business?

the view from inside a luxury RV
It  has been a while since I have had some strongly worded responses to things I have written in this space, but the last post about a privately-owned RV park in Sask Landing Provincial Park got almost as many comments as the Wawota quad rally post  last year.

If you want to raise an environmental issue that will elicit some discussion, it seems all you have to do is give your opinion on the ways Saskatchewan people use public land for recreation.

Before I say any more about that kind of use and the privatization agenda that goes with it hand in glove, I have to provide a correction with some new information I have received about that privately owned and managed campground for long-term RV leasing at Sask Landing Park.

In my last post I wrote that some of the campers there were “building decks and extending their site footprint well into the drip-line zone [beneath the cottonwoods]. 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.”

Well, it turns out that that is not entirely fair, and overstates things. The campground owner said in his comments that “We have about 10% of our lots with cotton [sic] poplars on them. All potential lessee [sic] had a list of those lots and were well informed no building can happen on the drip zone. I assure you that non [sic] has!”

I have received another report, however, assuring me that there are some firepits under the cottonwoods. A third report said that there were pathways and paving stones being placed under the dripline and people are cutting the grass. Nevertheless, it sounds like disturbance under the cottonwoods is not a serious problem at least in this first summer of the campground bringing in 125 long term lease RVs. 

Therefore, I owe the campground owner, Mr. Bardahl, an apology for jumping to conclusions. I will be more careful.

However, the details of what is or is not happening under one grove of trees is not the main issue here. As Mr. Bardahl points out in his remarks, it is the privatization of our provincial park land that is troubling me.

Why? If you have been going to Saskatchewan Parks as long as I have you will know the problem and its history. A comment I received from a reader who has witnessed a degradation of our parks under privatization and weak regulation sums things up:

“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.”

The degradation described here began with the neo-liberalism of the early ‘80s. The new Grant Devine Conservative government, following its ideology of reducing government and turning public assets into private ones, started to sell off rental accommodations in provincial parks—in particular, the new facilities at Duck Mountain and Cypress Hills. The buildings began to decline almost immediately under private ownership and the fees rose. Meanwhile funding for ecological programming and maintenance of park infrastructure began to erode as tax-cutting agendas took hold of voters and governments in the late 80s and 90s.

During the NDP era, none of this was remedied and now under the Saskatchewan Party the agenda of saving taxes by cutting environmental protection and providing corporate welfare for private developers has a firm grip on our parks system. Private contractors are often engaged to cut firewood, maintain trails and clean facilities—and the work, when it is done, does not have the same kind of quality control and accountability that comes with a fully funded park system. Compare the state of the trails in our parks to those you see across the border in the United States or in some other parts of Canada and you will know what I mean. Our park staff do the best they can with inadequate budgets but we keep electing the government that promises lowest taxes.

Unfortunately, the same people who want their taxes low also want more RV campsites in our parks. The demand for fully-serviced camping facilities with water, sewer and electrical hook-ups and for long term RV-sites in our parks is on the rise.  For whatever reason, more and more people seem to need to experience nature with a fifth-wheel trailer or motorhome close at hand.  
Cypress Hills Provincial Park Campgrounds . . . how much is too much?

Meanwhile, other campers are complaining about the lack of quiet, natural camping for tents, and feel that RV users are taking over our parks and getting more than their share of park budgets.  These conflicting perspectives both need to be heard, but we have to find ways to meet a wide range of recreation and camping needs without harming the natural heritage of our provincial parks.

Unfortunately, instead of a clear focus on carrying capacity and ecological limits, we seem to have a park system that has thrown open the doors to private business—come one come all. All proposals will be considered—monster home subdivisions, RV lease site campgrounds, golf courses. How about a strip mall? Paint ball anyone?

All of these businesses could be set up on private land but in the new Saskatchewan, developers are learning that costs are far lower if you can set up on publicly-owned land, particularly if there is some water, sewage, road and electrical infrastructure you can piggy-back upon.

I have nothing against RV camping but it is, like hunting or fishing, a high-impact use of public land and likewise requires some limits and strict regulation. We don’t increase the bag limits and numbers of hunters allowed in any given zone of the province just because more people want to hunt; we stick to limits based on what the ecology can bear. It has to be the same with building campgrounds, golf courses, marinas and other kinds of man-made disturbance in our parks.

Do we want to end up with provincial parks that look like privately run tourist operations attached to suburban subdivisions? I would hope that most Saskatchewan people want to keep our parks natural and ecologically healthy, but if we keep privatizing and developing pieces of land to meet the growing demand for of high-impact recreation, the beauty, wildness, and quiet that draws us to our lakes and parks will slowly become layered over in gravel, asphalt, concrete, and paving stones.

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)

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