In a belated holiday gift for wilderness lovers, Manitoba Conservation decided shortly before New Year to end its ill-conceived experiment with free admission to provincial parks.
Since 2009, visitors to Manitoba parks have been spared the trouble of paying entrance fees. This populist policy began ostensibly as a recession-busting measure but was also justified as an attempt to encourage more Manitobans to travel within their own province.
On a political level, waiving the entrance fees could have been seen as a harmless gesture by an NDP government eager to portray itself as friendly to ordinary working families.
But on a practical level, it was easy to take issue with deliberately forgoing $2.5 million to $3 million a year worth of revenue that could have been spent on improving provincial parks.
Failing to charge admissions also deprived the parks branch of a means of accurately gauging the numbers of people entering provincial parks during the peak summer season. Having no staff at the front gate also annoyed some tourists seeking information about park amenities.
And on a purely symbolic level, charge nothing at the gate subtly suggested parks have no intrinsic value.
Beginning in May, however, vehicles entering provincial parks will be charged $4 for day admission, $8 for a three-day pass or $30 for a season pass.
Dave Chomiak, who up until Friday was Manitoba's Conservation Minister, said it was time to balance his government's desire to keep parks accessible with the need to generate some revenue for parks
"It helps people recognize there is a cost to providing that public good," Chomiak said earlier this month, referring to the admission fees.
The veteran MLA said he was aware some frequent park users were annoyed by the free-admission policy. But the revenue the parks will resume collecting this spring still won't be funnelled directly toward park improvements.
"As a rule, we don't earmark any kind of revenue. Most of the revenue we acquire goes into general revenue," Chomiak said.
The province has always maintained provincial parks have not suffered as a result of the free-admission policy. Both Chomiak and his predecessor Bill Blaikie have been careful to note the parks-branch budget has steadily increased since the fees were first waived.
Manitoba Conservation is also in the midst of a five-year, $100-million series of capital upgrades to provincial parks, including more than $12 million in investment in Grand Beach Provincial Park alone, Chomiak added.
That's welcome news, but the majority of this cash is being spent on infrastructure improvements such as sewage-treatment upgrades and car-camping facilities. Wilderness protection, back-country camping, trail creation and park stewardship appear to be secondary considerations for Manitoba Conservation, at least right now. As I've argued several times in this space, Manitoba Conservation is behind the times. Not everyone who visits a park wants to sit in a crowded campground and listen to the hum of a generator plugged into an RV.
Increasingly, Manitobans and tourists alike view parks as a place to hike, bike, paddle or ski, both on day-use trails and overnight trips into the backcountry.
Many southern Manitoba parks don't even allow back-country camping and the ones that do have very few sites. There's no formal registration system in both remote and easily accessible provincial parks.
During a paddling trip in Atikaki Provincial Wilderness Park last summer, every American tourist I encountered expressed disappointment with Manitoba Conservation's limited web presence and the absence of back-country registration and information. Most were bewildered Manitoba doesn't do more to promote ecotourism.
Chomiak had pledged that would change under his watch.
"Our people are looking at it," he said, promising to develop some form of ecotourism strategy for a province blessed with some of the most pristine wilderness on the planet. "In our overall plan, we clearly want it to be one of our planks."
It was encouraging to hear a conservation minister acknowledge the wilderness in some capacity. But since Chomiak was replaced Friday by Gord Mackintosh -- who now heads up a combined water stewardship and conservation portfolio -- we'll have to wait and see what this government actually proposes.