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B.C. government walks back approval of park day-pass system

'The system will be back,' said a spokesperson from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. 'It’s not an if but a when.'
Garibaldi Lake (accessed from Rubble Creek trailhead) is one of the BC Parks trails that will now require a day pass to access. | Photo by Vince Shuley

The B.C. government is walking back its statements around the relaunch of a day-pass system for several provincial parks across Metro Vancouver.

Earlier Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy had confirmed the day-pass system — first introduced in the summer of 2020 to limit a surge in demand  — was expected to be up and running in the next few weeks. 

“The system will be back,” said the spokesperson. “It’s not an 'if' but a 'when.'”

But by late afternoon, the ministry retracted the statement, saying instead the day-pass program remains under consideration and a final decision will be made in the coming weeks.

Lower Mainland parks were flooded with visitors at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that continued through the winter and led to long lines of traffic in places like Golden Ears Provincial Park this past weekend.

That’s on top of a long-term upward pressure on the park system. Park visits in the South Coast spiked to 10.3 million in 2019, up from 6.5 million in 2010. At that rate, the ministry projects visits to hit 16 million per year by 2029.

While not committing to its roll out this year, the ministry described day passes as “an effective tool to manage growing demand.” 

According to the ministry spokesperson, the crowding of provincial park trails around Metro Vancouver is leading to soil erosion, damaged vegetation and altered hydrology. But it’s also affecting visitors’ experiences and impacts public safety.Search and rescue teams across Metro Vancouver have been dealing with a spike in rescues in previously little-explored wilderness areas.

Tom Zajac, president of Coquitlam Search and Rescue, said that’s partly a product of more people trying to getting outside during the pandemic. 

“We know (the day-pass system) is going to drive people to other areas,” said Zajac, adding people need to be more cautious along unmaintained or far-flung trails. “We found out where people are going. We’re now prepared.”

Others have been more critical of the same-day crowd control pass system.

“We’ve got lots of concerns,” said Monika Bittel, chair of the Southwest BC Recreation and Conservation Committee and member of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC.

Bittel was among several outdoor recreation leaders who took part in a survey on the day-pass system with senior BC Parks staff and the Parliamentary Secretary for Environment Kelly Greene.

Last July, the day-pass system required park visitors to book a free online day pass before they entered Mount Seymour, Golden Ears, Garibaldi, Mount Robson and Stawamus Chief provincial parks. The 2,100 passes for Cypress and Seymour were routinely claimed by mid-morning most weekends. Anyone caught by park rangers without a pass could be fined $115.

That system pushed a lot of people out of provincial parks and into surrounding trails, said Bittel. The result? Networks of rivers and off-beaten trails have become packed with visitors and littered with garbage. 

When Bittel went hiking outside of Squamish last weekend, she said she came across at least 250 vehicles parked in every conceivable pull-out on the side of the road. 

“We’re seeing people going out who don’t have a lot of the background to leave no trace,” she said. “It doesn’t take long to find human waste — it’s becoming a problem.” 

Bittel is among a handful of representatives from outdoor recreational groups who say the money spent on restricting access to parks should be put into expanding options for hikers. That means installing more outhouses and directional loop trails that help disperse large crowds. 

“The budget for day-pass system last year was $900,000,” said Jay McArthur, who helps lead the Alpine Club of Canada’s Vancouver section. “You can work on a lot of trails with that.”

“We think (BC Parks) are in kind of crisis mode and they don’t have enough staff to manage it. This is their solution.”

The money is there.

Last month, the provincial government announced it would invest $83 million in funding into BC Parks over the next three years. But Bittel said she’s concerned how that money is being spent. To date, she said, only $3 million is being put toward restoring trails — that after 20 years of neglect.

The day-pass system, Bittel said, does nothing to address that problem and help give people options to explore outside without destroying the environment. 

“It’s an effective tool of restricting people, but it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem,” she said.

— with files from Brent Richter, North Shore News