CLEAR LAKE — Her first day on the job, new Riding Mountain National Park superintendent Michaela Kent went walking and spied a fox.
That was last January. Not long after that, Kent saw her first lynx. She has also seen bear and much more.
“That was the most surprising thing to me, how much wildlife you see here,” said the 44-year-old mother of three. “I’ve seen so much. And it’s so accessible. It’s really fantastic.”
Kent wants to market that accessibility to increase park visits, and subsequently park revenues, to offset the staggering cuts to Canada’s national parks by the federal government.
She may have to turn into Clark Kent to succeed — the massive cuts make it more difficult to increase park visits.
Ottawa chopped the annual budget of Parks Canada by $30 million in 2012, which forced RMNP to go from a four-season park to three seasons. That has impacted the economies of the 15 municipalities that surround the park.
Eight positions were eliminated at RMNP, and an estimated 40 to 50 staff saw their positions reduced by two to three months on average. As well, the park does not become fully-staffed until mid-June, instead of early May. Campgrounds are also opened later in spring, and closed sooner.
The cuts occurred before Kent arrived from her previous post at Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador. Kent, a Newfoundland native with a master’s degree in English literature, hopes to turn the page on the recent past.
So far, she has won kudos for consulting stakeholders. In May, she held 14 public meetings with surrounding communities.
Many weren’t well-attended, but the people present talked about Kent’s willingness to co-operate.
However, park superintendents have lost much of their autonomy the past five years, as Parks Canada decision-making has become increasingly concentrated in Ottawa.
One of the top priorities at RMNP is the 52-kilometre highway through the park. Parts of Highway 10 have become an embarrassment for a national park, more so the north-south lane.
There are stretches that have turned into paved washboard, and parts with more potholes than gopher holes in a Manitoba alfalfa field.
“It’s self-speed control,” said a member of one Clear Lake stakeholder group. “Instead of speed bumps, it has speed holes.”
Kent recognizes the importance of Highway 10: “It really informs the visitor experience. People drive that road to view wildlife and access the trails,” she said.
RMNP has done studies on what repairs and structural changes are needed, but can’t do anything without funding from Ottawa.
Slashing winter staff has also affected cross-country ski activity.
The federal government is trying an American model of relying on mostly retirees to act as “trail stewards” to groom trails, using Parks Canada equipment.
But only about 40 km of the park’s more than 200 km of trails are being groomed, and skeptics wonder how long the volunteerism will last.
Part of the plan to increase visitors, which started before Kent arrived, is to attract immigrants to camp and make day trips.
A strategy started several years ago targets immigrant populations at places such as the Maple Leaf plant in Brandon, and the HyLife Foods hog plant in Neepawa.
However, a RMNP initiative that once bused new Canadians — some immigrant populations like to “group camp” — was chopped by the federal government several years ago.
RMNP is continuing its Learn to Camp program at the Lake Audy campground where people can use camping equipment, such as a tent, stove and sleeping bags provided by Mountain Equipment Co-op, to get a taste of camping, before shelling out for gear. The equipment is available on a first-come (register), first-served basis.
Parks Canada also had a presence at the recent Countryfest in Dauphin, promoting itself as a camping destination with its “otentiks” — a tent and A-frame cottage hybrid. An otentik has a floor like a cabin, with the walls and roof of a tent.
“You still get the sound of rain on the tent but with the comfort of a cabin,” Kent said.
With zebra mussels discovered only a couple hundred kilometres away in Lake Winnipeg, another challenge will be stepping up efforts to keep the invasive species out of Clear Lake.
A study group has been meeting for more than a year and one of the ideas is to put up a boat cleaning station. However, there is no timetable and funds are tight.
» Winnipeg Free Press