Ontario parks have been severely underfunded for decades

A special report bythe Environmental Commission of Ontario spells it out in 2007.

Doing less with less

MNR Case Study #2:

Parks Program

Budget shortfalls mean MNR has difficulty fulfilling parks mandate

Funding has failed to keep pace with growth of parks system

MNR’s parks-related responsibilities have increased dramatically over the past 25 years as a result of a huge increase in both the number and total area of the parks, conservation reserves and wilderness areas under its jurisdiction, as well as a result of its expanded duties under the new Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, enacted in 2006.

When the Provincial Parks Act was introduced in 1954, there were only eight provincial parks established in Ontario. By 2007, the system had grown to include 631 parks and conservation reserves. Figure 1 illustrates the growth of the parks system since 1982.

Protected areas1

Chronic underfunding of the parks system has been documented for decades. This occurred even during periods in the 1970s and 1980s, when spending in other areas by MNR and the government overall was increasing. For example, the (former) Parks Branch share of the ministry budget shrank from 15 per cent in 1974/1975 to 9 per cent in 1980/1981, even as government spending grew by 133 per cent.

Between 1980 and 1993, the parks system lost 30 per cent of its purchasing power, even as the system grew substantially. Over that same period, visitor safety protection was reduced, park management planning ground to a crawl, few parks had professionally trained natural resource managers, most had no resident staff for most of the year, and research was reduced. For the purposes of this case study, the ECO has focused on the period since the early 1990s, when a new business operating model was adopted. The 1996 Ontario Parks Business Plan included significant cuts to funding and staff, and forced the closure and privatization of some
parks; 15 parks were no longer operated by MNR. Government funding of the Ontario Parks’ operating budget was cut by 58 per cent in 1996/1997. A Special Purpose Account (SPA) was established for retaining park revenues, such as park user fees, but this did not make up for the shortfall for several years. Even with SPA funding, the money available for Ontario Parks’ operations was reduced substantially in 1996/1997 – 28 per cent lower (in constant dollars) than in 1992/1993.

Figure 2 shows how government funding for parks decreased between 1992 and 2007 by 73 per cent (in 2006 constant dollars). Because of the increase in SPA revenues, the total operating budget is currently 23 per cent higher than in 1992/1993 (in constant dollars).

Op budget1

The percentage of costs covered by SPA revenues (comprising user fees, corporate sponsors and the sale of merchandise) has risen from 33 per cent in 1995/1996, to about 79 per cent in 2006/2007. The 1996 business plan goal of eventually operating the parks on a break-even basis remains the government’s goal today. Park fees were increased substantially for the 2005 and 2007 operating seasons.

Operating expenditures for Ontario Parks have exceeded the rate of inflation since 1992, but still have not kept pace with the expansion of the parks system. Since 1992, the number of provincial parks and conservation reserves has increased by 138 per cent and the amount of land in the parks system has increased by 51 per cent, far exceeding the increase in spending.

In addition, the budget has not kept up with the increase in visitors. The number of visitors increased over 40 per cent between 1992 and 2006, about double the rate of the increase in provincial population over the same period.

An MNR study concluded that, in 2001/2002, compared to other similar Canadian and U.S. state park systems, Ontario spent substantially less per campsite, less per visit and less per hectare than any of the other jurisdictions, and recovered a greater portion of operating expenditures through revenues. MNR concluded that “low net spending per hectare likely indicate(s) that needed protection and stewardship work is not being funded; low spending per visitor may indicate that customer service and infrastructure maintenance are being short changed.”

Operation of the parks system increasingly relies on volunteers. “Friends of the Park” organizations provide essential services, such as paying for staff positions to provide natural heritage education programs. By 2005/2006, the number of “Friends of the Park” groups had grown to 28, providing nearly 89,000 volunteer hours of service. In addition, park staff members often work a substantial number of unpaid hours.

MNR receives insufficient funding to maintain parks
The ECO, the Auditor General of Ontario (AGO) and others have raised concerns that the Ontario Parks Branch of MNR does not have sufficient resources to properly fulfill its mandate. These agencies have described inadequate capacity in the areas of management planning, enforcement, monitoring and maintenance of infrastructure.

The majority of provincial parks do not have approved management plans, which are essential for determining how resources will be protected and what will happen inside a park over a 20-year period. The ECO reported in 2004 that only 40 per cent of the provincial parks had an approved management plan and 72 per cent of those plans were at least 10-years-old. Only 19 per cent of non-operating parks (i.e., parks that charge no fees, have no staff on site, and offer only limited facilities) had approved management plans.

The AGO reviewed parks enforcement in 2002, and concluded that there is a significant risk that the ministry may not be maintaining provincial parks for future generations as required by the Provincial Parks Act. Park wardens and other ministry staff enforce this Act and other legislation, to ensure public safety and the protection of park resources, by patrolling parks and laying charges when necessary. The AGO recommended MNR review the level of enforcement activity in both
operating and non-operating parks to determine whether there are “adequate levels of funding, staff and equipment.”

Non-operating parks are visited by staff once a year, if at all, because scarce resources were allocated to operating parks. The AGO reported examples of illegal camping, hunting, tree cutting, vandalism and boundary encroachment by adjacent landowners in non-operating parks. A 2003 MNR document admits that without more staff it will take a number of years to visit and assess all non-operating parks, and ministry staff may never visit them all. Concerned about the neglect of
non-operating parks, the ECO cautioned MNR in 2003/2004 that “it is not feasible to plan and manage all protected areas based on a cost-recovery economic model.”

The AGO also reported in 2002 that park infrastructure – over $1 billion worth of buildings, visitor centres, drinking water and sewage works, and other assets – was deteriorating due to insufficient funding, resulting in health and safety risks and a decrease in park user satisfaction rates.

Since 2001, MNR has invested millions of dollars of specially-allocated capital funding to upgrade drinking water systems in parks to meet stringent new regulations, but other infrastructure continues to deteriorate due to inadequate parks base capital funding. For example, the marsh boardwalk at Presqu’ile Provincial Park, one of the best locations in Ontario to view migrating birds, has been closed since 2005 because it poses a public safety risk and there isn’t funding to repair it. MNR informed the AGO in 2004 that it could take 30 years, at current funding levels, to bring the parks’ infrastructure up to an acceptable state.

MNR does not have the capacity to fix these long-standing problems with the resources allocated to it. While MNR has agreed with the recommendations of the ECO and AGO over the years, it has had to set priorities for allocating the available staff and financial resources. An April 2006 document from the Ministry of Government Services makes it clear that further belt-tightening is being imposed on the parks system: “strategies … have been developed within Ontario Parks to
assist them in achieving program priorities and obligations within existing budget allocations. Ontario Parks has been required to look at different and more efficient ways of doing business in order to deliver on desired government results while living within expenditure limits …”

More staff cuts were announced in spring 2006. Summer parks staff levels were cut by 19 per cent, affecting educational and park interpretive programs, closing park stores, and requiring theearly closure of some parks. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union and environmental groups have raised concerns about the cuts to park funding in 2006.

Funding jeopardizes objectives of new parks legislation
The ECO commends MNR for reviewing its parks legislation and the creation of new protected areas, but is concerned that it will be extremely difficult for MNR to adequately administer and enforce the new Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act without an increase in funding. A primary objective of the Act is to protect biodiversity. The Act requires the ministry to manage protected areas for ecological integrity, prepare management direction for all protected areas, and
initiate new ‘state of the parks’ reporting. In 2006, the Ontario Parks Board also called for increased resources to implement the Act: “The Board believes that a commitment to ecological integrity will require more spending on protected areas.”

Conclusion
The public has a strong and emotional connection to Ontario’s parks, conservation reserves and wilderness areas; even those residents that aren’t regular park visitors expect the system (of both operating and non-operating parks) to be protected and properly maintained. Unfortunately, the parks system has been underfunded for many years, to the point where the ministry has not been able to meet its legislated responsibilities, or to provide adequate services to the public. MNR does not have the capacity to manage the system, which is growing in size and complexity. Over the past few years, the number and area of protected areas has grown substantially, and new parks legislation has added a new scientific mandate and more rigorous requirements. At the same time, the amount of money allocated from general revenues to protected areas has been cut repeatedly. While park revenues have increased, they have not been sufficient to offset the combination of severe cuts in government funding, the dramatic growth of the parks system and the expanded
responsibilities of MNR.

 — Doing Less with Less: How shortfalls in budget, staffing and in-house expertise are hampering the effectiveness of MOE and MNROffice of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, April 24, 2007, p. 51 -55.

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