A petition to restore winter services to Riding Mountain National Park garnered almost 800 signatures, putting pressure on the federal government to re-examine budget cuts.
“I want to see a return of the maintenance of the cross-country ski trails to this park and other National Parks,” said Celes Davar, who started the petition and is an Onanole business owner. “It was a silly decision to change the designation of Riding Mountain National Park from a four-seasons park to a three-seasons park.”
The cuts, which affected RMNP’s ability to maintain about 150 kilometres of winter-trail system, are having a devastating impact on the local economy, according to Davar.
“It’s a slap in the face for rural tourism,” said Davar, who has played a role in growing winter tourism to the park for more than 20 years.
Davar said the government isn’t doing enough to promote the park, which is still open in the winter. And that federal messaging has confused many of the people who used to frequent the park in the winter months — people who now believe the park is closed completely.
He was also unimpressed with Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle’s response to the petition, calling it “a weak” and “typical” government response.
“As part of its efforts to help reduce the federal deficit and meet the $29.2-million reduction to Parks Canada’s budget as announced in the 2012 budget, the agency has taken several steps to reduce its expenditures,” Latourelle said.
“Parks Canada is focusing investments on the periods when national parks and national historic sites are busiest. As part of this effort to align seasons with patterns of visitation in the vast majority of national parks, the agency will focus investments on the busy summer, spring and fall seasons. The pattern of visitation at Riding Mountain National Park of Canada is consistent with this direction.”
Latourelle is also satisfied with the amount of public consultation the government undertook after making the cuts.
“Riding Mountain National Park representatives have already met with several groups concerned about the future of winter activities within the Park and are available to meet with other concerned citizens as required,” Latourelle said. “Mr. Robert Sopuck, member of Parliament for Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette, also recently held public consultations to discuss winter activities in the Park.”
Kurt Mazur, who runs the youth Jack Rabbit ski program in Wasagaming, is part of a volunteer group that is trying to ensure that the trails at RMNP continue to be groomed. But the volunteer group, which will act as a partner with RMNP, has been forced to put the brakes on grooming due to government red tape, according to Mazur.
“Without any grooming in the park, the Jack Rabbit program would shut down,” Mazur said. “It’s been a very slow process. It’s new for Riding Mountain and Parks Canada and it hasn’t been as easy as everyone has thought it would be.”
He doesn’t believe that volunteers can be expected to shoulder the load over the long term, believing that the government should re-examine the winter-services cut. Mazur also said that since the initial meetings regarding the issue in August, there has been a lack of leadership from the federal government.
An official with Sopuck’s office in Ottawa directed any questions regarding the matter to Parks Canada.
“It’s not feasible to expect volunteers to do this for a long period of time,” Mazur said. “People are already getting tired. They’ve been to meeting after meeting and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we are going to get this done and we haven’t even started grooming yet. Now, we’re going to get a snowfall and people are busy shovelling out their own driveway, but they have to get to the park to groom some trails. It will be very hard to sustain through volunteers.”
The Jack Rabbit club has already seen a reduction in numbers, Mazur said, down from 15 last year to seven this winter.
“We had families that were affected by the budget cuts so their kids are no longer in the ski program,” Mazur said.
He said others don’t want to ski on the trails out of principle, believing they should still be maintained by RMNP staff.