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.


  1. Everything the person you quoted said is true.
    I was at Duck Mountain this summer for the first time in a while and I’ll probably never go back. The trails are unusable, the beach is filthy, and you can’t even get milk at the camp store. I also saw some terrible behaviour, like people cutting off branches that were in the way of their RV extensions. Do you know of any parks in the province where it's still possible to camp without being surrounded by motorhomes?

    1. thanks for confirming that report. I have not been to Duck Mountain for many years now but it was once my favourite forest park. Motorhomes are everywhere these days to be sure. Perhaps some readers will suggest campgrounds that are still pretty quiet . . . .

  2. Hi Trevor
    I am surprised that you use your platform to publish viewpoints that you have not taken the time to verify. The problem with doing this is that a reader might assume them to be true. If you want to see what is actually happening at Duck Mountain I suggest you get out and see for yourself and form your own opinions, otherwise you own other people's bias's and destroy your credibility to comment on issues like these.

  3. Fair comment Mike but I have seen Duck Mountain myself recently and in the past--in fact I had a very small cabin at one of the old subdivisions for a couple of years back
    in the '80. It is still a great park with a lot of natural areas but the recreation pressures on the main lake are affecting some bird populations. I too noticed the decline in the state of the rental units from the '80s onward. Having said that, fill me in--what is "actually happening at Duck Mountain"? What positive trends are you seeing that protect the biodiversity of the park in general and the lake in particular?

  4. Loon nesting protection zones, increased inspection and enforcement of fishing regulations and increased education about how to protect and enhance biodiversity utilizing the park interpretive programs and planned activities are three examples.

    I'm not certain when you were last here, your reply to my post says recently but in your August 23rd post you say you have not been here for many years???

    Nevertheless come see for yourself what is happening currently rather than accepting other people's posts as fact.

    Duck Mountain certainly faces challenges around privatization and recreational pressure primarily in the six week period following July 1st each year. However, in my opinion the park is arguably provides the best blend of biodiversity and recreational opportunity of any of the parks in the southern half of the province. Our challenge is to ensure that an appropriate balance is maintained as we move forward.

    1. Thanks Mike--that stuff is helpful for sure. I was last at Duck Mntn in the winter a couple of years ago; and my last summer trip was in the early 2000s when I was surprised at the number of large homes now in the park. I agree that the park still maintains a pretty good balance and is one of our best. (As you know that six week period in the summer is pretty crucial for loons, herons, and red-necked grebes.) But the comments from a reader that I posted were backed up by others who sent me private messages, and I have heard disturbing rumours about proposed developments. Duck Mntn is a gem--let's keep it that way and do more to improve habitat and protection. People I know who go to that park feel it is reaching its carrying capacity and more development would upset that balance you mention. Thanks for joining the discussion and offering your perspective.

  5. Hi Trevor, I don't disagree with you but I wanted to clarify that not all people with RVs have the 40 foot luxury level fifth wheels or motorhomes. Technically my husband and I are RVers but we deliberately chose a 25 foot trailer with no slide-outs, no AC, no microwave and no TV. We like to go to parks with smaller sites and no services but with lots of nature. At 60+years old our tenting days are long behind us but we tried to compromise between comfort and extravagance and we think we have done so. We just spent 2 weeks out in the Rockies and didn't once plug in except to our solar panels. As an aside, most BC Provincial Parks have no serviced sites and they seem to have no lack of customers.

    1. Thanks for the comment--though it goes without saying that like any group of people RV owners area varied bunch. I did say "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." That is my primary point. We need to figure out what the carrying capacity is for this kind of high impact use of park land and then regulate it accordingly.

  6. Thanks Trevor for the excellent article. I'm a Last Mountain Lake 'lifer'. My family had one of the first cottages in a development just south of Rowan's Ravine Provincial Park. My father was an early shore-line advocate. Your descriptions of development also apply to what I have seen on Last Mountain Lake. I think it's time that we place limits and regulations on development. In the case of Regina Beach it appears that mother nature is taking things in hand---literally. Anyway...very rich and thoughtful blog. Would value being part of the conversation. Best! Kathleen (Kathy) Hunter

    1. Thanks Kathleen for joining the conversation. You are right--inside and outside of our parks we need to start a more rigorous planning process to protect the landscapes and places we value before we love them to death.


Share this post

Get widget