Parks Canada is warning that deteriorating heritage buildings, visitor centers and other assets in Canada’s national parks and historic sites are at “significant risk” and in desperate need of repair.
The federal government is boosting some user fees in 2013 to cover increasing operating costs and to help address the infrastructure backlog, at the same time it cuts millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs from the agency, The Windsor (Ont.) Star reported.
The eroding infrastructure also means Canadians can expect temporary closures of facilities and highways, and reduced levels of service in national parks across the country, according to a new Parks Canada report on its plans and priorities.
Parks Canada – which administers 44 national parks, 167 historic sites and four national marine conservation areas – will also establish two new national parks by 2015 (in Nunavut and Labrador). But it must do so with significantly fewer resources. The 2012 federal budget cut Parks Canada’s funding by $29.2 million over three years, resulting in potentially 600 job losses across the parks system.
The more immediate needs, however, appear to be crumbling facilities and roads, as Parks Canada’s $15 billion assets are aging and in growing need of repair.
Approximately one-third of cultural resource assets (including historic buildings and fortifications) are in “poor condition,” according to the report, while one-third of Parks Canada visitor facilities – which help improve visitor experiences and generate revenue – are also currently in poor condition.
“The rate of deterioration of these assets is increasing,” says the report. “These treasured parts of Canadian history are at significant risk.”
Moreover, more than half of the agency’s assets are dams, highways and bridges – of which more than 50% are also classified as being in poor condition.
The report notes that “actual asset failures are becoming more frequent,” a problem illustrated by the recent collapse of sections of the Cabot Trail, it said.
Parks Canada is also “challenged” to maintain or improve ecological integrity in national parks and meet its legal requirements for species at risk, the report says, due to such things as invasive species and habitat loss.
Andrew Campbell, Parks Canada’s vice president of visitor experience, stressed that while infrastructure in poor condition requires repairs, the facilities are safe for Canadians to use and enjoy.
Last month’s federal budget announced $19 million for upgrades to highways and bridges in national parks, he noted, and the agency is hopeful it will receive additional long-term funding from the government’s renewed, multibillion-dollar Building Canada Plan.
“We’re really hopeful in what is in this year’s budget in the fact that the government has identified the need for investment in federal infrastructure,” Campbell said. “We’re extremely optimistic at Parks Canada that’s going to help address some of our needs.”
Visits to national parks, conservation areas and historic sites has dropped nearly 20% over the last 15 years. Campbell said the reduction in visitors is partly due to what he called the “nature deficit disorder,” but said the agency is doing its best to reconnect Canadians with their parks.
But the union representing most of Parks Canada’s workers said visitor experiences will likely further erode due to ongoing funding and job cuts.
Eddie Kennedy, national executive vice president of the Union of National Employees, said Parks Canada’s crumbling infrastructure is no surprise and may only worsen as the federal government’s budget cuts sink in.
“This is the accumulation of years and years of not being funded to the amount that they should have been funded to maintain the assets,” Kennedy said. “The cuts in the (2012) federal budget are going to compound that.”