By Julee Boan

Vacationers may have noticed some changes to their favourite park this summer. While conservation groups were applauding the new Parks Act, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) was slashing Ontario Parks’ budget, leaving the department struggling to make up a 2.4 million-dollar funding shortfall. As a result, an estimated 226 full-time summer jobs and more than 1,100 seasonal and student jobs were eliminated – 19 percent of the usual summer workforce – leaving park managers strapped to provide park services.

Parks advocates are frustrated by the imbalance in the ministry’s priorities. These budget cuts come at a time when MNR is offering substantial subsidies to the forestry sector. Forest companies will receive $70 million through retroactive stumpage fees, and another $10 million is earmarked to improve Forest Resource Inventories. A whopping $350 million is available through a new loan guarantee program. But the $75 million that the ministry has committed to the construction and maintenance of logging roads is most disconcerting to naturalists.

“It’s absurd to be slashing Ontario Parks’ budget at a time when our system of protected areas is expanding,” says Evan Ferrari, director of parks and protected areas at CPAWS Wildlands League. “MNR and Ontario Parks have seen considerable budget cuts over the last 10 years. This latest slash can have only a negative impact on the long-term viability of these special places.”

Ontario’s parks attract about 10 million visitors each year, and MNR recovers almost 80 percent of park expenditures from users – $50 million of a $64 million budget. Yet Ontario spends significantly less than most Canadian provinces and U. S. states on park programming, while ranking the highest among them in terms of user fees.

“The healthy lifestyle and educational benefits of our parks are well known,” says Wendy Francis, director of conservation and science at Ontario Nature. “We hope next summer the Province will renew its commitment to protected areas – not through user fee increases, but through investment.”