Photo by PT Douglas

On September 27, the Ontario government announced they were moving forward with plans to “transform” the Ministry of Natural Resources in an effort to increase efficiency and reduce duplication in services offered to the public.

"The decisions we’re making are necessary to modernize our business, make the ministry sustainable and help the government balance the budget,” Resource Minister Michael Gravelle said in a written statement. “I’m confident that we will be more efficient and better organized to focus on what matters most to the people who rely on the ministry’s programs and services."

Translation? They are cutting 28 full-time staff and 102 seasonal positions in an effort to save $7.1-million annually, and remove the need for $12.3-million worth of future capital costs.

For Gravelle – whose office deals with more than 25,000 permits annually – automating the permitting process as much as possible will save his ministry time and money, and is the cornerstone of the new announcement. They have posted their new ministry direction on the Environmental Bill of Rights website, stating the purpose of the new policy is to “seek input on a policy framework that will help direct the future modernizing and streamlining of approvals (e.g. licences, authorizations, permits) delivered by the MNR.”

(Anyone seeking further information about the proposed modernization plans at MNR can find their detailed EBR submission here, in addition to a government backgrounder detailing the proposed changes here.)

But what do these changes mean for the average Ontarian? Not a whole lot, unless you happen to be one of those 130 full-time or temporary staff given a pink slip. (Student workers needn’t worry, necessarily, as MNR will remain one of the largest employers of young Ontarians in 2013, offering more than 1,900 positions to students across the province.)

However, one of the more contentious aspects of the “transformation” is a proposal to eliminate overnight camping and amenities in 10 provincial parks, mostly in the province’s northeast. While these redesignated parks will retain their status and enjoy protection under the Provincial Parks Act 2006, they will become non-operational parks – open only for swimming, hiking, fishing or canoeing, for example.

The affected parks — Caliper Lake, Fushimi Lake, Greenwater, Ivanhoe Lake, Mississagi, Obatanga, Rene Brunelle, Springwater, Tidewater, The Shoals — will see changes take place in advance of the 2013 operating season. So don’t expect an outhouse when nature calls or you need a place to change into your bathing suit.

The reason is that simply not enough people are visiting these 10 parks, and the government says it doesn’t make financial sense to keep them operational.

As an example, the ministry points to The Shoals, located about an hour’s drive east of Wawa, Ontario. Because less than 5,000 people visited this park in 2011, the government recouped only 30 cents for each dollar it invested. In other words, these parks consumed valuable resources that the ministry could be investing in well-used parks like Algonquin and Wasaga Beach.

While the MNR was looking for ways to make permitting faster, they likely took a look at park budgets and realized they could allocate their money more efficiently among Ontario’s 334 parks, which see 9.5 million visitors annually. To do that, something had to give.

But policy decisions around provincial parks don’t exist in a vacuum. They have real world consequences, both for the park employees and the millions who come to enjoy Ontario’s natural spaces every year.

Such decisions can also carry political connotations, and the latest MNR directive has stirred further feelings of isolation and alienation from northern Ontarians, who are frustrated at the lack of warning or consultation on the latest decision. Kapuskasing Mayor Al Spacek told the Toronto Star that northern politicians are “livid” at the announcement, calling it “a major policy decision that has been made arbitrarily out of Queen’s Park.”

Malcolm MacDonald, spokesperson for Friends of Ivanhoe Lake Provincial Park, also told the Star that Northern Ontario doesn’t need more day-use parks. “We can go out our back door and go for a hike or walk, or a boat ride,” he said. “What we don’t have is parks where we can camp.”

Spacek told the Star that he and other mayors were set to visit Queen’s Park on October 18 to persuade the Minister to change his mind.[ER1]

Until something else gives, there won’t be many happy campers in Northern Ontario.

 

The Current Events blog focuses on a wide array of environmental current events in Canada, ranging from issues of politics and public policy to energy, natural resources, and environmental science. 

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

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