Want a parking spot and a picnic table at a Lower Mainland park on a sunny summer weekend? Better have a game plan.
Take it from the locals enjoying Cultus Lake at 8 a.m. on a recent long weekend. There’s no sleeping in if you want calm water and a quiet beach.
“You learn tricks to avoid the rush,” said Danielle Henderson, coffee cup in hand. “On a sunny afternoon, don’t even bother.”
By midday, Cultus Lake is buzzing. The choppy water teems with boats and jet skis. The packed beach smells like grilling meat and garbage. The happy screams of kids at the waterpark drown out the whine of dirt bikes on a nearby mountainside.
Traffic on the single road into the park is at a standstill, the line stretching almost 10 kilometres to Yarrow, where Darlene Gooch’s sleepy community has undergone its annual summer transformation.
Last year, word got out about a swimming hole on the Vedder River. The hidden gem was overrun, leading the City of Chilliwack to restrict parking on Yarrow streets to ensure emergency access. The signs have helped, said Gooch, but it’s a “real pain” when visiting family can’t find a place to park.
Across the region, it’s a similar story at other popular parks, beaches and trails. Officials estimate 5,000 people turned up at Centennial Beach in Delta on a recent weekend, hoping to get one of 650 parking spaces. Buntzen Lake and Sasamat Lake in the Tri-Cities area are often full, and closed to incomers, by noon, with road signs telling people to turn around.
Green space creation is not keeping up with housing construction in some cities where there is simply no more land for parks, said John McEwen, chair of Metro Vancouver Parks. “If people want to continue to take their family to a park on the weekend, land acquisition is going to be key.”
As it is, the impromptu picnic seems to be going the way of the spontaneous camping trip, which now requires booking four months in advance for B.C.’s most popular provincial parks.
Anca Dee reserved several extra nights to secure a site in Cultus Lake Provincial Park on the July long weekend. She was upset when she realized the site next door appeared to be used to hold two ski boats and an extra vehicle.
“That could be another family, but instead it’s a boat,” she said as she filled a water jug.
The overcrowding extends even further into the backcountry, where lineups on popular hiking trails, such as Joffre Lakes near Whistler or Quarry Rock in Deep Cove, challenge the image of the pristine, unspoiled B.C. wilderness promoted by tourism associations.
On the August long weekend, Kevin Nellies was disappointed as he followed a trail of hikers to the Dog Mountain lookout in Mount Seymour Provincial Park.
“It’s too busy for me,” said the tourist. “People in front, people in back. The crowds detract from the nature experience.”
Outdoor enthusiasts say the crowding we’re experiencing this summer is the tip of the iceberg — the visible, irritating edge of a problem that’s been building for the past 20 years and threatens to grow worse before it improves.
To manage the region’s population growth and accompanying demand for recreation space, government needs to change the way parks are funded, maintained and promoted, says a chorus of voices from people with combined decades of experience working, volunteering and enjoying the outdoors.
“We’re victims of our own success,” said Sam Waddington, owner of Mt. Waddington’s Outdoors in Chilliwack and a former city councillor. “When you have a lot of people going to the same trail, or the same campsite, but the funding hasn’t changed, and the maintenance hasn’t changed, and the staffing hasn’t changed, the user experience goes down and the ecological damage is severe.”
In addition to crowding in parks and campgrounds, hikers are seeing more braided trails, created when people leave the main path and make new routes up mountainsides, destroying fragile ecosystems along the way. Volunteers are collecting more litter, which left unattended can habituate bears to humans, leading to record high numbers of conflicts. Search-and-rescue teams are sounding the alarm about ill-prepared, selfie-seeking hikers who inevitably run into trouble.
“We’ve become reactionary in our approach,” said Waddington. “As a result, you have B.C. Parks spending its time mopping up the damage instead of having their bright, motivated staff out there truly working with users.”
From its place within B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, B.C. Parks isn’t the only government branch responsible for the province’s wild spaces. Recreation Sites and Trails B.C. manages campsites and trails on Crown land, but is housed within the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. The two-tiered approach, which becomes even more complex when you add national parks, regional parks and municipal parks to the mix, makes it difficult to identify a cohesive strategy for the use and protection of B.C.’s natural assets.
But Chris Ludwig, president of the B.C. Mountaineering Club, thinks he has it figured out.
“We’ve made the choice to do nothing,” he said. “When this issue first came up, we had options. We could have built more capacity, opened new areas, approved more trails. Eventually the only choice left will be bans, restrictions, quotas and closures.”
It took two years, onerous paperwork and “serious battling” for Ludwig and a team of volunteers to get provincial government approval to build a trail to Watersprite Lake near Squamish. Less than three years after its completion, the trail is being promoted by Destination B.C., the provincially funded Crown corporation responsible for tourism, and Ludwig recently counted 68 cars in the parking lot.
Similarly, it took about 10 years of work to recently reopen the 74-kilometre HBC Heritage Trail between Hope and Tulameen, said Kelly Pearce, program director at the Hope Mountain Centre. The charity is hoping to create more trails in the area, but it’s a slow and costly process. A recent attempt took about a year of mapping and an archeological assessment. The application has been sitting with the provincial government since March, with no word on when it may be approved.
“Crowding is definitely an issue in some areas, but I’d be more upset if I saw user numbers declining,” said Pearce.
All signs point to a steady incline. In 2018, B.C. Parks recorded over 24 million visits to provincial parks, a 23.5 per cent jump from 10 years earlier.
The government is taking steps to manage the growth. Earlier this year, B.C. Parks added 362 campsites at 13 provincial parks, according to a statement from the Ministry of Environment. It also acquired more than 1,600 hectares of land to be added to existing parks. The parks operating budget increased by $1.3 million — and five additional staff were hired — to support the campground expansion.
B.C. Parks is also working on a visitor use management strategy at Joffre Lakes, where attendance has tripled over the past decade. The aim is to improve the “overall visitor experience, addressing safety concerns, recognizing First Nations interests, and protecting the park’s natural and cultural values.”
Recreation Sites and Trails B.C. also added campsites on land it manages — 232 sites in 12 recreation sites this year.
In a statement, the Ministry of Forests said it takes about a year on average for authorization of proposed new trails, although more complex applications may take longer.
At the regional level, the Metro Vancouver Parks chair, John McEwen, said the district has steadily increased its land acquisition fund to about $7 million. He’s hoping to see that figure double in 2020.
“Not all parkland needs to be playing fields,” he said, pointing to work to provide access to Widgeon Marsh, a reserve in northeast Coquitlam that’s one-and-a-half times the size of Stanley Park.
The mayor of Anmore said it’s important for Metro Vancouver to educate people about how money is spent: “I think a lot of people would accept a few more dollars on their tax bill if they understand that it’s being used to buy land for parks.”
One oft-cited solution among users of B.C.’s backcountry is to fund parks and trails through tourism, either by imposing user fees that are rolled back into the system, or by diverting some of the money visitors already generate.
In 2017, tourism contributed $9 billion to B.C.’s GDP — more than any resource industry, including mining ($4.9 billion), oil and gas ($3.7 billion) and forestry ($1.8 billion), according to figures provided by Destination B.C.
The Crown corporation does not contribute financially to the maintenance or creation of parks and trails, but it’s not oblivious to overuse concerns.
Destination B.C. spokesperson Sarah Hearsum said managing visitor capacity “to minimize negative experiences associated with over-tourism” is a key part of its planning process. Staff have already adjusted promotional messaging on its websites to disperse visitors from certain areas at certain times. Joffre Lakes hasn’t been promoted since 2016.
But it may be too little, too late, said Barry Janyk, executive director of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C. “Tourism takes in billions, but puts zero back in. You can’t keep milking the dry cow.”
Better education could also help alleviate some problems, he said. More rangers could educate people about proper gear at the trailhead, possibly reducing search-and-rescue call-outs, while keeping a hand on garbage and trail degradation.
B.C. doesn’t have to blaze a new trail to be successful.
“We actually live in a very underpopulated area,” said Waddington. “We have low usage in our backcountry compared to almost anywhere else on earth. If you speak to land managers in parts of Asia, Western Europe or the U.S. national parks, they would laugh at the volumes we struggle with. We can do so much better. Other places are doing so much better.”
The avid climber and mountaineer added: “I believe that you can manage backcountry infrastructure for any volume of use. This is just a standard case of a lot of people coming to beautiful areas, and we’re not accommodating them.”
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