On Sept. 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 capital costs moving forward.
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 does that mean for the average Ontarian? Not a whole lot, unless you happen to be one of those 130 full-time and 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 in ten provincial parks, the vast majority in the province’s northeast. While the re-designated parks retain their status as provincial parks and enjoy protection under the Provincial Parks Act 2006, they will become non-operational parks – open for swimming, hiking, fishing or canoeing for example, but closed for overnight camping and lacking in amenities.
So don’t expect an outhouse when nature calls or a place to change into your bathing suit if you come for a swim next summer.
The reason is that simply not enough people are visiting these ten parks to make financial sense to keep them operational, says the government.
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.
The ministry points to The Shoals as an example, stating less than 5,000 people visited this park in 2011, and the government recouped only 30 cents for each dollar invested. In other words, these parks consumed valuable resources the ministry could be investing in well-used parks like Algonquin and Wasaga Beach.
While MNR was looking for ways to make permitting faster, they likely took a look at park budgets and realized money could be more efficiently allocated among Ontario’s 334 parks that see 9.5 million visitors annually. But 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 people employed at those park and the millions who come to enjoy Ontario’s natural spaces every year.
They can also carry political connotations, and the latest MNR directive has stirred further feelings of isolation and alienation from northern Ontarians 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. What we don’t have is parks where we can camp,” he said.
Spacek told the Star he and other mayors were set to visit Queen’s Park on Oct. 18 to persuade the Minister to change his mind.
Until they do, there won’t be many happy campers in Northern Ontario.