Article by Trevor Herriot via trevorherriot.blogspot.ca
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.
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.
So, where is this going to go next? Well, there is a new private cottage subdivision proposed for Sask. Landing Park on a promontory overlooking the north side of the valley and east of the highway. Aside from the aesthetic loss of a hill crest in the park, there are concerns that some of the land slated to be covered by McMansions may contain native prairie.
Meanwhile, the Parks Ministry is being pressured by private developers who want to build major marina/RV park projects along undisturbed lake shore habitat in two provincial parks: Greenwater and Duck Mountain. Marinas of this kind inevitably require a lot of dredging and disturbance of the critical littoral zone. Both of these lakes are already showing stress from overuse and vulnerable species like the Common Loon are declining as boat traffic and shoreline development increase.
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.
Trevor Herriot is a prairie naturalist, author and writer of Trevor Herriot's Grass Notes. His recent article, 'Get your piece of Saskatchewan: privatizing provincial parks,' is a must-read for patrons of Saskatchewan's most cherished natural resource.
For more information, visit Herriot's website at trevorherriot.blogspot.ca.