A three-year-old federal promise to restore Parks Canada’s funding has yet to bring back a full slate of winter activities to Riding Mountain National Park, frustrating efforts to bring more tourists and business to Manitoba’s only road-accessible national park.
In 2015, when Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party was trying knock off Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the federal election campaign, the Liberal Party platform called for the reversal of $25 million worth of cuts to the Parks Canada budget made by the Tories during the 2012-13 budget season.
Those cuts forced Parks Canada to stop grooming hundreds of kilometres of ski and snowshoe trails at Riding Mountain National Park, halt winter interpretive programming and reduce staffing at the park gates on Highway 10.
Winter programming was also scaled back at other national parks, including Prince Albert in Saskatchewan, leaving four-season operations intact only at some of Canada’s most popular parks, including Banff and Jasper.
Communities around the affected parks soon complained about the reduction in winter tourism, leading the Liberals to pledge a remedy if elected.
“We will reverse Stephen Harper’s cuts to Parks Canada, which cut more than $25 million from programs and services, and made it more difficult for Canadians to experience our National Parks and learn more about our environment and our heritage,” the party promised in its 88-page election platform booklet.
But three years into the Trudeau government’s first mandate, Riding Mountain has not been restored into a four-season destination.
“I think we definitely need to see the park kind of back to the way it was before 2012, helping to maintain all the trails,” said George Hartlen, CAO of the non-profit Friends of Riding Mountain National Park.
He says while Parks Canada has resumed the grooming of some trails in the park, volunteers continue to handle much of the workload, not all trails have been reopened and interpretive programming and gate staff are only back for parts of the winter.
Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fat-tire biking and winter wildlife-watching are all becoming more popular, he says , but the park has not been able to capitalize on the interest of Manitobans.
“They definitely want trails. They want ski trails. They want snowshoe trails,” Hartlen said outside the Friends’ office in Wasagaming, the townsite on Clear Lake, within Riding Mountain National Park.
Parks Canada also declined interview requests, but issued a statement listing winter improvements at Riding Mountain, including the partial restoration of ski-trail grooming and winter staffing, the winterization of picnic shelters and Wasagaming campground rental tents, the addition of fat-bike rentals and snow-plowing at trailhead parking lots.