At Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota, the South Unit visitor centre is open 362 days a year, closing only for Christmas, New Year's and American Thanksgiving.
At Rocky Mountain National Park on the snowy slopes of northern Colorado, the Beaver Meadows visitor station only closes for Christmas Day. At Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park, where the scenic road sits above 2,400 metres, the sole visitor centre is open every day of the year.
None of these parks can be described as popular winter destinations. Theodore Roosevelt's main draw is badlands that aren't visible below winter snows. High-altitude Bryce Canyon is often just as frigid. And despite its close proximity to Denver, much of Rocky Mountain National Park is impassable.
Yet the U.S. National Park Service remains committed to offering winter services at most of its parks, in spite of more than $400 million worth of budget cuts over the past decade.
In Riding Mountain National Park, in supposedly winter-hardy Manitoba, the visitor centre isn't open for more than six months of the year, from the day after Thanksgiving until the shortly before the Victoria Day long weekend.
This was the case even before Parks Canada faced $29.2 million worth of cuts, as the philosophy on this side of the border is winter is no time to enjoy natural areas or at least learn a little bit about them.
Cuts this year have merely further clawed back winter services at Riding Mountain, formerly prized by cross-country skiers for its 218-kilometre network of ski, snowshoe and skate-ski trails. As reported earlier this week, there will be no ski-trail grooming at Riding Mountain this winter, and also no skating trail, skating rink or visitor-safety services, with the RCMP picking up the slack for the latter.
According to Parks Canada vice president Bill Fisher, these changes have everything to do with budget cuts and nothing to do with his agency's philosophy. Parks Canada is simply being pragmatic by aligning services with peak-period use, Fisher suggested in an interview.
To give him the benefit of the doubt, there's no ideal way to deal with budget cuts. But people who love parks tend to be idealists, not pragmatists.
Cutting winter services to parks because people don't use parks during the winter seems like circular reasoning when winter services in Canadian parks were not exactly fantastic in the first place.
It's upsetting enough to see the U.S. offer more in the way of basic services than Canada does, given our supposed embrace of winter. Cutting back further on winter services will only reduce local tourism, harm the economies of small communities near parks and at Riding Mountain, and deprive people of one of the cheapest and most accessible means of engaging in a healthy winter recreation.
According to Fisher, the wider implications of winter-service cuts on the economy of rural areas or the health of citizens are beyond the scope of Parks Canada.
He is correct. Our overall well-being is in the hands of elected officials in Ottawa.
ELA closure unlikely to affect paddlers
In a related bit of news, the environmental-science community was saddened, if not surprised, to hear of Ottawa's decision to end four decades of whole-ecosystem research in the Experimental Lakes Area southeast of Kenora, Ont.
From a naturalist's perspective, this is lamentable. The work conducted at the ELA over the past four decades has proven invaluable toward protecting freshwater lakes and drainage basins around the world.
With ELA research slated to wind down this fall, canoeists who paddle through the interconnected chain of lakes -- only a handful of which have ever been manipulated by scientists -- may worry about the fate of the surrounding recreational area.
In the short-term, nothing will happen: Most of what constitutes the ELA is Crown land, encompassing both unincorporated wilderness and official protected areas, including Winnange Lake Provincial Park, Eagle-Dogtooth Provincial Waterway and the Dryberry Lake Conservation Reserve. Paddlers will still be able to visit the area and the most spectacular lakes in the region -- Teggau, Hawkcliff and Highwind among them -- will remain protected from development.
In the longer term, however, there will be questions about the fate of the ELA field station at Boundary Lake and the well-maintained gravel road that provides access to the facility. Right now, most of this road is off limits to most motorists. In time, Ontario must decide whether to open it up to other users or close it for good.
And while it would be preferable to keep the ELA field station open as a research facility, it happens to sit at a spectacular site with tremendous tourism potential. Expect a debate about its fate if Ottawa follows through on its ELA shutdown plans.