Trails, parks maintenance uncertain amid funding woes

In 2001, two members of the Burns Lake forestry community were shocked to learn that someone was cutting picnic tables in half with a chainsaw and pulling out fire rings at the Ethel F. Wilson Provincial Park.

But Ken Guenter, Burns Lake Community Forest’s (BL Comfor) manager and Dawn Stronstad, registered professional forester, former employees, were amazed to find out that the perpetrators weren’t vandals, and in fact were government employees sent to decommission BC Parks in the Lakes Forest District and that all 28 recreation sites were slated for closure as well.

The pair took the news back to the BL Comfor board of directors. Many of these sites were initially established by locals in the area. They had been in use for many years. The motivation for government to be involved in these sites was partly to keep the sites maintained and to install fire rings, a very important part of minimizing fire hazards.

“When we heard this news, we knew something had to be done,” said Lynn Synotte, former BL Comfor director and former president of the Lakes Outdoor Recreation Society (LORS). “These sites were well-used by many tourists and locals, a chance to enjoy the lakes and peace of the countryside…for free.”

Even though it was a hot topic, they were told it was a done deal. The three parks, 28 campsites and seven trails were slated to be closed down.

Soon after, Michael de Jong, former Minister of Forests came to Burns Lake. He was shocked when shown the pictures of the decommissioning work and the resolve to close them loosened.

LORS, a not-for-profit society, was established in 2002 and consisted of BL Comfor directors and other members of the community. After some negotiation, it was agreed that if LORS took over the maintenance, the sites could remain open. The BL Comfor directors, noting that the support of outdoor recreation fit very well with their mission statement, voted to finance the maintenance, and provide administrative support.

The BL Comfor provided $20,000 to LORS annually beginning in the mid-2000s, as Crystal Fisher, President of the BL Comfor wrote in an email to Lakes District News.

The Ministry of Forests would also provide some financial support ($5,000), paint, supplies and insurance. This arrangement lasted for many years; with the forest service occasionally boosting their contribution, but LORS applied for funding yearly from many sources to supplement the budget.

Unfortunately, in 2013 BL Comfor put its funding on hold amid a review of operations.

“The BL Comfor board had made it clear to LORS that the funding structure was likely to change in the next three to five years,” Fisher said.

LORS then turned its attention to finding other sources of funding to continue the maintenance, and the Burns Lake business community came to the rescue, providing financial and in-kind support. LORS also curtailed maintenance of the seven trails.

In 2014, BL Comfor came back on board offering LORS $30,000 for three years for site maintenance and additional money to upgrade the six sites that fell within its forest license. By that time the sites were in dire need of upgrades. LORS directors were grateful and were able to begin replacing dilapidated outhouses, picnic tables, signs, kiosks and resolve other maintenance issues.

Funding was also received from the Nechako-Kitimaat Development Fund and the Community Accessibility Fund for a review of the sites for universal accessibility and later to upgrade infrastructure to accommodate differently abled visitors. In addition, BC Parks completed an extensive upgrade of Pendleton Bay Provincial Park.

In 2016, Chinook Community Forest funded upgrades and maintenance for four campsites that fell within their forest license. Recreation Sites and Trails BC increased their contribution and BC Parks came to the table with a small amount in 2017. BL Comfor continued its funding.

Fast forward to 2019.

The three-year funding from BL Comfor has come to an end and its contribution has been reduced to $3,500. However, in a letter sent to LORS, BL Comfor has committed to matching the largest single donation from other donors, up to $15,000. The donation must be on-going for at least for five years.

BL Comfor pointed out that over a 15-year period it has provided more than $300,000 to LORS to help it maintain its recreation sites.

Resources for one-time capital expenditures are often available but there is limited funding available for maintenance and almost none for multi-year commitments. Although the directors of LORS have been successful in obtaining external funding in years past, raising funds on a yearly basis is a constant worry and affects planning. The society has managed to raise only $38,500 to support the anticipated $55,000 budgeted for 2019 operations.

“We are actively seeking other funding”, notes LORS president, Garth Schienbein, “and we are in the process of reviewing whether we can continue the maintenance of all our sites next year, some may have to be let go.”

To assist in the funding search, LORS is launching a survey on its site to gather information on usage of the 28 sites and three provincial parks.

LORS’ Facebook page shows the sites available for free camping and outdoor recreation as well as the short, five question survey.

In the words of former BL Comfor employee Dawn Stronstad, “in the age when so many ‘family’ activities have a big price tag attached, having free use of beautifully maintained recreation sites and trails is amazing and provides unmeasurable social value. The economic benefit of having visitors from out of town visit our area to recreate (and spend money here) is also of great benefit to our area.”

For more information contact: Garth Schienbein, President. Lakes Outdoor Recreation Society. 250-692-1708.

– With files Lakes Outdoor Recreation Society

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