The capital budget for Canada’s national parks and historic sites is being slashed by more than two-thirds this year even as more than 30 per cent of the agency’s assets remain in poor or very poor condition.
Parks Canada is also coming off a second year of lost revenues thanks to COVID-19’s effect on visitor numbers.
The government’s main estimates published this spring allocate a capital budget of $138 million, down from $448 million spent last year and $556 million in 2020-21.
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told the House of Commons environment committee last week a “time-limited” infrastructure program for the agency to bring its assets up to par has ended.
“The agency is developing a long-term plan for the management and sustainability of its infrastructure,” he said.
A 2021 Parks Canada report on the state of its assets says the agency has a portfolio of $26.6 billion in assets, including everything from historic buildings and structures to highways, bridges, canals and lighthouses.
An assessment in 2012 identified that more than half the agency’s assets were in poor or very poor condition. A second assessment, completed in 2018, said that had improved but still 40 per cent were in poor or very poor shape. The other 60 per cent were considered to be in fair or good condition.
Guilbeault said last week the number in fair or good is now up to 69 per cent. That leaves 31 per cent in a poor or very poor state.
In 2020, Parks Canada reported that 274 heritage assets, including 145 buildings, were in poor or very poor shape. Another 1,697 contemporary assets, including 198 bridges, 47 roads, 685 buildings and 149 roads, were in poor or very poor condition.
Parks Canada said in a statement it has spent $4.2 billion since 2015 on 1,000 projects to fix 5,000 of its assets. Projects include $91.8 million to completely overhaul Province House in Charlottetown, $57.3 million to repair and stabilize lockstations, canal walls, wharfs and buildings along the Rideau Canal, and $5.9 million to repair walls, buildings and the water and wastewater system at Lower Fort Garry in Manitoba.
The 2018 report, done by a New Zealand consultant company, suggested Parks Canada needed to invest $9.5 billion to repair its assets, and also needed between $1.6 billion and $3.3 billion to ready its parks and sites to withstand the increased rainwater, flooding, fires and other damage expected due to climate change.
The agency said in its 2021 statement on its assets that it had done a climate change risk assessment. Its parks have been hit hard by extreme weather in recent years, including 19,303 hectares of Waterton Lakes National Park burned by a wildfire in 2017, almost 38 per cent of the park.
The fire damaged roads, bridges, picnic and parking areas, affected 80 per cent of the hiking trail network and destroyed campgrounds, stables, staff housing, water and electrical systems.
In 2019, post-tropical storm Dorian destroyed 80 per cent of the trees in Cavendish Campground in Prince Edward Island National Park, and eroded two to four metres of its coastline. The same storm damaged 97 km of background trails in Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site in Nova Scotia.
Before the pandemic, Parks Canada was averaging more than 24 million visitors a year, not including the record-breaking 2017-18 year when free admission for Canada’s 150th birthday celebration drew more than 27 million tourists to parks and historic sites.
In 2020, when Canada shut the border to most international visitors and some provinces rolled up their welcome mats even for tourists from other provinces, park attendance fell 27 per cent and historic site visitors fell 39 per cent. Parks were closed for two months in 2020, and many historic sites were closed the entire year.
Attendance bounced back last year, but is still well below pre-pandemic levels at 21.5 million total visitors.
The 2020 drop-off meant revenues from admission fees, accommodations, guided tours, rentals and retail sales, fell 37 per cent to just over $100 million. Revenues for 2021-22 have yet to be reported.
Parks Canada President Ron Hallman says it is difficult to predict what will happen this summer because international tourism is still a big unknown.
“We’re looking forward to a good year coming up,” he said last week. “It’s hard to predict what it will be with international travel, but domestic use has been strong.”
International travellers to Canada fell from 31.6 million the year before the pandemic to 1.5 million in 2020-21 and about five million in 2021-22. The border is now open to fully vaccinated visitors and travel is starting to rebound.
—Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press