A Brief Review of BC Parks Spending: Late 1980’s to present

This review covers 30 years of BC Parks’ operations and shows that there has been a huge reduction in the operating budget and staff numbers during that time. Using constant 2020 dollars, Parks’ operating expenditures dropped by over 60% from the late 1980s to 2017 and although there was a modest one -time increase in 2018, the provincial budget shows spending declining again to 2022. No report has been issued for 2019, and almost no financial data is available for many years.

The spending reduction is 74% per capita for BC’s population. The area managed by Parks has increased by 250% so per hectare the reduction of spending is over 90%.

Staff numbers have dropped by at least 70% since the early 1980s, so staff per hectare has fallen by over 90%. There were reports that there were fewer than ten full time rangers in the province in 2017. But it is misleading to review Park’s operating expenses alone. While they have drastically cut personnel and operating expenses, Parks have invested heavily in camping and day use infrastructure and raised camping revenue by 275% (in constant dollars). Contractors (‘Park operators) have been hired to manage vehicle accessible campsites and day use facilities, which are defined in this review as the “Front-country”. The Park Operators have been reimbursed by allowing them to retain most campsite revenues and through additional subsidies from Parks.

The overall result is that annual investment in Parks’ front-country has continued to rise while expenditure on the backcountry has fallen sharply. Depending on how the cost of Parks’ staff is allocated, front-country expenditures are now 4 to 6 times higher than those of the backcountry and less accessible parks. BC Parks has become a campsite and day use operation, paying little attention to the backcountry and to the many less accessible parks.

1. Introduction

The review analyses BC Parks’ data from late 1980s to present. This range was chosen because there are no BC Parks annual reports available between 2002 and 2006, and very limited financial data was provided in the 1990s. The late 1980s also provides a convenient starting point for any comparison because the use of outside contractors (Park Operators) started at that time.

2. Constant dollar comparisons

This review is based entirely on inflation corrected numbers using published Canadian CPI indices. All costs are in $2020.

3. Financial data available

BC Parks’ financial reporting has not been consistent. From the 1980s until 1994 Parks reported only two cost categories: ‘Operating cost’ and ‘Capital’. We assume that these ‘operating costs’ included personnel costs, miscellaneous goods and services, amortization and any subsidy provided to Park Operators. From 1995 to 2007 there is no Parks data available on the web, but since 2007 BC Parks have reported the following cost categories:

  1. Salaries benefits and travel
  2. Miscellaneous goods and services,
  3. This has only been reported since 2006 but Park’s reports provide no indication of what it covers. Having reviewed the BC Government financial guidelines, we assume that it covers depreciation of computer equipment, vehicle and camping facilities.
  4. Subsidies paid to Park Operators to keep them whole.
  5. Camping revenue retained by Park operators. This is a cost because Parks pays the Park Operators out of camping revenue.
  6. Capital costs; comprised generally of camping and day use improvements such as toilets and showers, water systems, roads, and trails. They included repairs to the Myra Canyon trestle bridge. This report assumes that 95% of capital expenditure has been on frontcountry facilities- see comments in paragraph 5, below.
  7. Capital cost of land acquisition (or sometimes the assessed value of such land acquisitions where some of the land has been donated or sold at a discount).

This review focusses mainly on the sum of Items (a) and (b), which represents personnel costs, and are referred to as ‘Operating cost’ in this review. Item (g) is ignored.

The report compares front-country and backcountry expenses because front-country expenditures have increased rapidly in the last 30 years, while backcountry expenditures have fallen even faster.

4. Operating costs

Operating costs and staffing levels have dropped enormously in the last 30 years as shown in Table 1.

Operating cost (which largely represents personnel costs) fell by over 60% during a time when the BC population increased by 66%, and Park’s land under control more than doubled. Staff numbers dropped by 70% from the early 1980s to the present.

Table 1 Reduction in Operating costs 1987/90 to 2017 (all in $2020)

Gross reduction in expenditure 61%
Reduction per capita BC population 74%
Reduction per hectare managed 90%


5. Capital costs

While operating costs and staff numbers have fallen year by year, Parks capital spending, ignoring land acquisition, has increased substantially. Almost all of this capital investment has gone to front country facilities related to camping and day use, and this has allowed Parks to increase camping fees. As a result the fees retained by Park operators have increased rapidly. This is shown in Fig 2.

Park’s reports from 2009 to 2015 provided details on capital spending. The cost categories were; campground and day use, toilets & showers, water and sewage, roads and trails/picnic shelters/viewing platform and historic buildings.  There was also a category ‘roads and trails’, which represented 10% – 14% of capital spend in the 6-year period. Given the relative cost of roads and trails it is reasonable to assume that trails did not represent more than 5% of annual capital spend and consequently almost all capital expenditures have been on ‘front-country’ assets.


6. Front-country versus backcountry


Based on the foregoing it is possible to make an approximate comparison of Parks annual expenditures on the Backcountry, including less accessible parks versus those on the Front-country.  This is shown in Table 2. The analysis depends on assessing how the operating costs should be divided, and we do not have enough information to do this accurately. Park’s annual reports give little guidance on this issue, but the 2010 and 2011 reports suggested that the cost of rangers was approximately 25% of total operating costs at that time. On this basis up to half of the operating cost should be assigned to the backcountry, while the other half covered management, finance and general support staff and should be divided between back and front country in proportion to the investment in the two activities


Table 2. Parks’ expenditures on backcountry and front country

$ millions per year ($2020) Backcountry Front-country
Operating cost (note 1) 12-15 5- 8
Amortization (note 1) 1 6
Capital (note 2) 1 17
Contractor camping fees & deficit payments 0 29
TOTAL 14-17 57-60


7. Visitors

BC Parks annual reports always emphasize visitor attendance and satisfaction. Although 2019 appears to have established a record for attendance, Fig 3 shows that visitor numbers have not increased greatly over the last 30 years and Fig 4 shows that they have dropped on a provincial per capita basis.



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *