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Outdoor recreation advocates want BC Parks passes to take a hike

More than 203,000 passes were booked last year.

Visiting some popular provincial parks will once again require a free day-use pass in British Columbia. 

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy announced Thursday the free BC Parks Day-Use Pass Program is back at three of the most popular parks. 

A spokesperson for the ministry says the reason is "to maintain a balance between the growing number of visitors and conserving the natural and cultural values that make parks special.”

The passes are not new to B.C. and many people have purchased them in previous years; however, outdoor recreation advocates are concerned about the restrictions and lack of options for outdoor activity in B.C. 

The dates for the passes going into effect are different depending on the location:

  • from May 6 to Oct. 9, a pass is needed to visit Joffre Lakes Provincial Park;    
  • from June 14 to Sept. 4, a pass is needed for Golden Ears Provincial Park; and,
  • from June 14 to Oct. 9, a pass is needed for specific trail head parking lots in Garibaldi Provincial Park (Diamond Head, Rubble Creek and Cheakamus). 

People can purchase the pass two days before their arrival, starting at 7 a.m., on the BC Parks reservation site.

Vehicle passes are available for Golden Ears and Garibaldi, whereas Joffre Lakes has individual trail passes. 

"Some of B.C.'s most popular parks are drawing more visitors than ever as outdoor recreation continues to grow in popularity,” states a ministry spokesperson.

In 2022, more than 203,000 passes were booked between June and October.

"These free passes have been effective at reducing the effect on the natural environment and providing a more enjoyable experience by reducing congested trails, roads and parking lots,” states the ministry.

Parks a popular choice

Lower Mainland parks were flooded with visitors at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that continued through the winter and led to long lines of traffic in places like Golden Ears Provincial Park this past weekend.

Park visits in the South Coast spiked to 10.3 million in 2019, up from 6.5 million in 2010. At that rate, the ministry projects visits to hit 16 million per year by 2029.

According to the ministry spokesperson, the crowding of provincial park trails around Metro Vancouver is leading to soil erosion, damaged vegetation and altered hydrology. 

“It’s also affecting visitors’ experiences and impacts public safety,” said the spokesperson. “Search and rescue teams across Metro Vancouver have been dealing with a spike in rescues in previously little-explored wilderness areas.” 

The three parks are the same as the ones in 2022.

The day-use pass program started in 2020. Five parks required the passes in 2021, including Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Park, Chief Parks Backside Trail in the Stawamus Chief Park, the trailheads at Diamond Head, Rubble Creek and Cheakamus in Garibaldi Park and Golden Ears Park.

Outdoor recreation advocates are calling out the ministry for doing “very little” to expand parks and get more trail systems in B.C. 

“It's disappointing that for the past few decades there have been very few investments in expanding our park system, making them bigger, creating more opportunities within the existing parks and just kind of creating more trails and more opportunities for people to get outside,” says Louise Pedersen, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC (ORCBC).

Surveys done by the council state seven in 10 British Columbians participate in outdoor recreation on an annual basis.

A spokesperson says BC Parks is investing $21.5 million to “expand and enhance opportunities for outdoor recreation throughout the province” and is focusing on new campsites and trails along with upgrading parking lots and facilities. 

"Most public use occurs on developed trails, backcountry camping facilities and established trailheads/parking lots. However, these facilities all have finite capacity and overuse can have negative impacts on the ecological values that make parks special," says a spokesperson. 

Indirectly, the council says it represents more than 100,000 British Columbians who use the huge network of trails and recreation areas to hike, ride horseback, mountain bike, nordic ski and snowmobile, among other activities. 

“We have a growing population, we have a growing population of people who love the outdoors, they want to have some experiences outdoors with their friends and families,” says Pedersen. “Let's see how we can kind of create those opportunities.” 

Putting a cap on visitors is not the solution and it is more of a Band-Aid, she adds. 

“We recognize that park passes might be necessary for... [the] short term," she said. "We would definitely prefer not to see that as a permanent solution. We would like to see the day pass system gone.”

Parks staff will be checking the passes. The public is reminded to print or download a copy of the pass onto a mobile device before arriving as some locations do not have cellphone service. 

People who need to cancel their passes are encouraged to do so, so that others can access the area. 

To learn more about day-use passes or to book one, visit the BC Parks website

With files from Stefan Labbé