Budget cuts leave volunteers keeping winter activities alive in national parks

OTTAWA — When Stephen Harper drove a snowmobile last week near Quebec City to highlight millions in equipment grants given to private clubs, a different scene was unfolding in national parks across Canada.

Winter-loving volunteers were clearing ski trails in national parks on their own time, stepping into the vacuum left by federal government budget cuts across the system.

From Prince Edward Island to British Columbia, small business owners, non-profit ski clubs and community associations have entered into agreements with Parks Canada to keep their beloved cross-country trails open and groomed.

Each deal is different — some groups are able to use Parks Canada equipment, others rely on community resources.

For Tom Carberry at the north end of Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, that means traversing five different trails over 44 kilometres with a snowmobile — sometimes dragging behind him a box spring to pack the snow on the track.

He has one or two other friends who help, and fuel costs are covered with the help of funding from a local resort and a community group. Four other connected groups and families around the park do the upkeep on different trails.

“We have not entered into any significant fundraising activities because — as we keep reinforcing to anyone who will listen — we do not want to be doing this activity,” said Carberry, who often uses his own snowmobile for the work.

“(We) still feel it is a core park service but don’t want to see the trails fall into disrepair and not be used. Our concern is once people get used to skiing elsewhere, they will be very difficult to get back.”

Winter services began to disappear in parks across Canada in 2012 as the agency started imposing deep spending cuts that have since left Parks Canada with a budget $27 million lighter than it was three years ago. Some parks had fresh management plans in place that talked about expanding winter services.

Documents obtained by the Toronto Star last year indicated that reducing the operating season at parks and historic sites would save the agency $5 million annually. Today, only a handful of national parks have an active winter service run by staff, including Banff and Jasper in Alberta.

Local communities complained there had been no consultation on the decision.

Gradually volunteer groups began to offer to pick up the slack, working with local Parks Canada employees that they often know very well from the area.

Stephane Morissette of the Centre Culturel le Griffon in Quebec’s Gaspe region entered into an agreement with Parks Canada to help groom 15 kilometres of trail in Forillon National Park. Before the cuts, 40 kilometres were kept up.

About five volunteers use the Parks Canada grooming equipment, but Morissette worries what will happen when the aging machines die.

“It’s impossible to get money from the federal government for that. We have money from the provincial government, from the town…, the regional municipality,” said Morissette.

“But from the federal government, no. To have money like the private snowmobile clubs — they have incredible equipment, some have two or three groomers and just use one.”

The government has spent multiple millions in economic development grants for Quebec snowmobile clubs since taking power in 2006. A separate envelope for national snowmobile and recreational trails has earmarked $35 million in funding since 2009.

The argument made by Parks Canada to communities was that the use of the parks during the winter was too low to sustain the investment in services. That frustrated some local businesspeople trying to develop tourism in the local areas.

Nancy Wood Archer, owner of the Hawood Inn near Prince Alberta National Park in Saskatchewan, says she has had to stop serving weekday breakfasts for the first time in 27 years. A local ski club is clearing roughly a third of the park’s trails.

In Gros Morne National Park in western Newfoundland, an outside group has been developing winter activities there for the past 20 years under a Parks Canada contract. The Gros Morne Co-operating Association cut the winter trails, and has been maintaining them, as well as winter overnight huts and a sliding hill.

Colleen Kennedy, executive director of the association, says use of the park by locals and tourists has grown, with the help of provincial winter tourism marketing plans.

“We are seeing growth — a lot of locals that didn’t used to use the park in that way are visiting now,” said Kennedy.

“We’re very fortunate. A lot of parks stopped their winter offer.”

Parks Canada did not respond to a request for information.

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