Community intervention for local parks needed

By Briony Penn, December 2014

Who knew? There are 42 provincial parks, from the southern Gulf Islands to Port Renfrew, that need your help.

Colin Campbell arrives off the ferry for his interview sporting his new sky blue golfing shirt from Elgin, Scotland where he grew up and where he recently returned to play a few rounds and experience the Scottish referendum. This long time public servant looks like a great many of the boomers around Victoria, someone who is ready to spend the rest of his days pursuing a small white ball around golf links. But he is quick to dispel that notion.

“Is it a reasonable proposition to society that I deserve to play golf for the rest of my days when I might have 30 years of a healthy, productive life left?” he asks. Campbell, who spent his career in government as a director of provincial parks planning, recreation and sport and heritage, has obviously been honing more than his back swing of late. He and his fellow “parkie” retirees want you to get to know and love all 42 local provincial parks within the vicinity of the Capital Regional District, stretching south from Port Renfrew to the Gulf Islands. Think Sooke Potholes, Goldstream, Gowlland Tod and, on Saltspring, Ruckle and Burgoyne Parks, to name but a few.

These parks, including ecological reserves, are the crown jewels of the region, yet they sit largely unguarded and somewhat neglected with a great need for a constituency that cares for them. “Friends of” groups and Ecological Wardens do the best they can but have little support and can’t be expected to replace public stewardship. Neither the Gordon Campbell (no relation to Colin), nor the Christie Clark provincial governments have placed much value on our parks. Campbell of Elgin points out that less real money is going into parks than in 1970, despite a 300 percent growth in the number of parks. Our government invests $4 per hectare in looking after our park landscapes versus the $22 per hectare spent in Alberta. Despite a deluge of submissions to government committees and the like from park supporters, less and less money is available to meet operational needs and whole categories of staff such as extension officers and interpretative officers have been removed. 

Campbell attributes the decline to various factors, some of which have to do with the problems parks pose when they get in the way of resource extraction and pipelines (See Focus, April 2014). 

Another factor is that many of the new parks that were created since the heyday of the 1970s were selected on the basis of biodiversity and don’t have the same revenue-generating capacity as the old seashore, beach and mountain parks. With no immediate financial lures to hold their support for parks, no government since the ’70s has provided operational dollars for the greatly expanded system. For the 42 provincial parks in this region there are just two area supervisors and a skeleton staff. With talented but overworked staff, there is little ability to promote parks, capitalize on their tourism potential or work with communities and volunteers. 

The net effect, Campbell observes, is not only declining integrity of these protected areas but a shrinking constituency for parks. “When you don’t have people using and looking after them, then you don’t have people standing up for them. Nobody seems to be talking to MLA’s about improving parks. If there is no public engagement in these areas, what is stopping their elimination in the face of economic difficulties? That’s the challenge—to re-introduce and re-engage communities with their provincial parks.” 

I ask Campbell if that means substituting his clubs for his broom-bashing shears to cut down the invasive plant that his ancestors brought here, or bringing his hammer and tools to fix loose boardwalks? He and his Elders Council for Parks in BC colleagues have a broader vision. They think that Southern Vancouver Island residents love their provincial parks and can be attracted to spend more time enjoying and supporting them. The group want to build a community model around the Greater Victoria area for provincial parks that others could copy. Over the last year, with the help of a team of advisors, they have given shape to the idea of building a province-wide network of park supporters, linked to a suite of parks. They would build on the existing network by helping Friends organizations recruit more easily and volunteer wardens carry out their functions. The crew want to get new volunteer experiments in storytelling into parks and to have universities conducting more research in them. Campbell is even hopeful that, like Scotland luring the English MPs into Scotland, he can lure local politicians into parks to build some appreciation. 

Campbell is not shy to use a little Scots Protestant guilt occasionally. “Given that we are living so long, we have an obligation to give back to the next generation. It just isn’t OK to disappear into a golf course.” He also argues that stewarding of a local park is the payback for which many are looking. “People want to help. Their constructive energy needs to be nurtured. They want to reconnect to the land. I think we all have a basic human need for it. And you get to look after things that are going to be there after you’re gone.” He knows that the surest way to ensure the future of parks is to have multiple generations invested personally in them. That, says Campbell, “will provide the resiliency that rides the ups and downs of short-term political whims.”

What, I ask Campbell, are the challenges in realizing this vision? “Enticing new volunteers depends on making it easy and giving them good reasons why they would want to get involved.” He cites one scenario: “Just imagine that you have a book club that moves its meetings to a local provincial park. Members get the benefit of exercise and fresh air, and have the opportunity to have deep conversations with each other as they walk down the trail. First they will start using the parks and second they might begin to see a greater role for themselves than just walking. Ecological restoration has the extraordinary capacity of being a means for personal healing growth and restoration. Right now we do not make it easy for people to go from user to active park supporter.” 

Campbell recognizes that it has been so long since parks have been celebrated and promoted in this province that people don’t even know what is out there. “How many people know there are 42 parks between here in Victoria and Port Renfrew? Even I didn’t know that until I started looking!” 

There are other challenges: Engaging the energy that comes from community involvement without loving the parks to death or turning them into Disneyland; supporting work being done by existing volunteers while finding new ways to bring in fresh ideas; and engaging First Nations in ways that are respectful and beneficial.

The Parks Collaborative is just starting up but will need help. They are looking for volunteers who care about parks, have good organizational skills, like to get things done, and get along with people. In addition they are reaching out to work with other groups who have a similar vision, such as the Lieutenant Governor’s new initiative to foster youth stewardship, and next year, a major new initiative to foster Provincial Park Leadership, which will be announced in Vancouver.

So if you are a retiree with some available time, or a park lover who wants to make a difference, or a teenager with a quirky sense of humour for the boomers, or a businessperson who wants to contribute and leave a legacy, now is the time to act. Campbell is confident that Greater Victoria can lead the province and build a coalition that can nurture our parks. For those with a competitive instinct, visit some of these parks and challenge your MLA to do the same. Get them thinking about this treasure house in our backyard. Your questions to them will get them thinking. Just look what sabre rattling did for strengthening Scotland. 

 

See project details at the www.elderscouncilforparks.org under the heading Parks for Life. Contact the Collaborative at colinkcampbell42@gmail.com.

Briony Penn PhD has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows and has been a columnist in Victoria publications since 1993. She lives on Salt Spring Island.