For those Brandon residents who happen to own seasonal cottages at Riding Mountain National Park, the federal government’s plan to cut $29 million from the Parks Canada budget will mostly go unnoticed.
Earlier this month, park superintendent Robert Sheldon told the Sun there were no changes expected for the cottage and cabin season, either to the length of the season or the services the park provides.
Businesses in the Wasagaming townsite would notice little change as well, as the operating season was to remain as normal. Sheldon said the Wasagaming campground hours will vary according to demand as they have in the past.
But for anyone who happened to enjoy the park in the off-season — spring, fall and especially winter — there are changes underway.
Starting this fall, there will be changes for less busy “shoulder seasons” — Victoria Day to Canada Day, and Labour Day to Thanksgiving. During those times, the visitor centre will run five days per week — Thursday through Monday — instead of the current seven days per week. It will remain open seven days per week during the peak season, July through August.
It’s winter that will be impacted most, with less staff on duty than in the past.
“People will see far less emphasis on the winter season and a more increased emphasis on summer, and also spring and fall to a point,” Sheldon said.
And as the Sun reported yesterday, school programs and tools for teachers to engage students at the park have been cut. In the winter, ski trails won’t be groomed, Cairns cabin will be closed, the popular outdoor ice rink will be affected, and search and rescue crews will be scaled back.
The cuts have also had a negative effect on park employees — in total 15 staff members are affected, with eight positions eliminated and seven given a reduction in term.
These cuts will also affect scientific study within the park. While 15 jobs are affected at Riding Mountain National Park, another 26 jobs will be cut in Winnipeg, many of them in the field office which provides technical and scientific expertise.
Bill Paton, chair of the department of biology at Brandon University, told the Sun he believes it’s paramount to see research programs continue at the park, building on historical data that has already been carefully recorded.
His concern, he said, was how research would be affected if some positions are scaled back from 12-month positions to 10-month positions.
“The information is invaluable,” Paton said. “Time will tell whether these changes will work out.”
But park safety is our largest concern, especially during winter months. Thankfully, one of the few things that won’t be affected is road clearing along Highway 10 throughout the year.
For visitors to the park, safety services can include making sure visitors have a trip plan, knowing where they’re going and can contact authorities if needed. While we have been told that remaining park staff will continue to work with RCMP and search and rescue groups to offer that service, we do worry that these staffing and budget cuts will have a more profound effect on park safety than officials are saying.
Holly Serle, a 21-year Riding Mountain employee who was among those who lost their jobs this month, also raised a valid concern. Our national parks require proper financing for upkeep, not just operations. If funding and staffing levels remain trimmed for the next few years as a result of these changes, park infrastructure could well begin to deteriorate.
“If you don’t have the money to repair our assets or keep them in good shape, what is going to happen?”
We understand the government’s desire to appear fiscally responsible, but we can only hope that they haven’t severely hobbled the operations one of Manitoba’s finest assets.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 15, 2012