In the late 1990s, the provincial government faced some tough financial times. The debt and the size of the economy were the same number. The government went through the usual rounds of layoffs and cuts, and the sorts of things they needed to keep the budget under control.
One of the things government did to help deal with the financial state was to get rid of a batch of provincial parks that it had built up since the development of the provincial roads system in the 1960s. They weren’t parks in the sense of the national systems in Canada or the United States. They were campgrounds and picnic sites.
In 1997, they billed the 21 sites as “business opportunities” for private sector or local not-for-profit groups. By the end of the year, they’d manage to get rid of the lot. “These parks were made available to the private sector, tourism minister Sandra Kelly told the House of Assembly, “because they offered viable business opportunities for rural Newfoundland. Government also realized that it no longer needed to play as large a role in the recreational camping industry as it once had in the 1970s.”
Recreational camping industry.
That’s not the image you get if you have been listening to the screams coming from some quarters in response to the provincial government’s latest twist in the campground tale. Politicians and editors alike have been raising a stink now that the provincial Conservatives plan to offer to sell the Crown land the campgrounds are on to the people currently running them.
According to the outraged bits of the commentariat, this is some new form of evil. Earle McCurdy is outraged. He goes on and on about the plan to sell “parkland.”: Truth doesn’t matter in this case. Politician Earle is really just spinning this as part of the NDP’s union-directed jihad against any reduction in the massive government overspending the unions have profited by. for the past decade.
Over at the Telegram, editor Russell Wangersky says that you “know a culture by what it chooses to keep and protect. And what it chooses to sell off. Or throw away.” He compares the state of some of these lands now up for sale to a bunch of day parks in Nova Scotia. The Nova Scotia ones are all well kept. The ones in Newfoundland that weren’t taken up by the private business crowd, not so much.
Wangersky makes an easy, if completely false, comparison. If the campgrounds in Nova Scotia are well maintained and used, it’s likely a good clue that people actually use them in enough numbers to make the parks financially viable. The reason the ones in Newfoundland and run-down and unused is not because government stopped spending money on them. It’s because people don’t use them.
In the 1990s, the provincial government got out of the business of spending money it didn’t have on things that people didn’t want to use. There’s no rocket science in that.
The provincial government didn’t get rid of its protected natural areas. The parks crowd didn’t divest of several park sites that included natural scenic attractions and they certainly didn’t dump parks like Butterpot that made lots of cash.
The government may not have done a complete job of evaluating the parks for important conservation features in the 1990s, as Doug Ballam has argued. That’s something they can correct this time around. Ballam, incidentally, makes a sensible proposal:
We are not suggesting that the ex-parks with special features be reinstated as parks. Instead, other conservation tools, such as community stewardship or, in the most extreme cases, protection as reserves should be considered.
What Ballam brings to bear on this issue is knowledge and experience both in government and in conservation. He knows the subject, which is more than can be said for McCurdy, Wangersky and a few others. We’d do well to heed his advice.
But to get back to the other crowd, we might wonder what is really going on in this government announcement. Some of the camp sites and picnic areas haven’t been parks for two decades. Some others have been run by the private sector. In both cases, the land has stayed as property of the Crown.
You can see a really obvious question.
Why is the provincial government now proposing to sell the land?
There is nothing innovative about the idea, no matter what words someone put in Keith Hutchings mouth in the official news release.
There are no new opportunities in this, even though the release uses the word five or six times.
And the government is not disposing of anything that it hadn’t already disposed of.
So why make this announcement now?
Back in 1997, the government had to deal with the potential the land could be exploited for mineral development. They firmly opposed any development. Here’s a statement from Brian Tobin, issued in July 1997.
“As a matter of public policy, the government has decided that it will not make these former provincial parks available for the staking of mineral claims, or the development of mineral deposits. Our intent was to preserve those lands for use as recreational facilities, at a minimal cost to the taxpayers. This is the course we set when we announced our plans to turn designated parks over to interested and capable operators. That course has not changed."
:That may not be what’s going on here.
But then again, we won;t know until someone stops promoting the NDP/union Grecian Formula starts asking some really simple questions that haven;t even been asked thus far.