Writing / Ken Storie:  Thoughts on Sustainability

Unsustainable Camping: And How our Government Subsidizes Waste

In light of what we now know about climate change and the human activities which can affect it, I believe the Manitoba Government should and can play a larger leadership role in both educating the public and in signaling our resolve to change behavior.

Much is being made of recent Environmental Policy initiatives, and no doubt there are some worthwhile measures and projects in the mix. But they really seem more like a public relations exercise than a serious attempt to address the real issues of sustainability. Real change will have to push us at least a little ways out of our comfort zone, and our governments (present and past) are very reluctant to challenge voters.

One department that one would hope would lead the way is Conservation, and one place where we should hope to see examples set is in our Provincial Parks. As in all departments, there is a lot of talk about sustainability. But as a frequent visitor to our many parks I have observed that they seem to be managed with a lack of sensitivity to environmental concerns. This is apparent in both small day-to-day management decisions and in some general policies.

The staff whom we encountered were friendly and pleasant, and in most ways were doing a fine job - but they perhaps needed some leadership and guidelines.

First and foremost, all the parks I have visited continue to enable our car-dependent culture in both subtle and obvious ways. At some campgrounds the most desirable sites, the ones close to the beach, are serviced sites. On these serviced sites one often finds large motor homes or trailers pulled by large trucks. It is obvious that many are long-term.

By contrast, we come in with our small car and a tent. If we can get an unserviced site we sometimes save a few dollars. The energy/environmental footprint differential and the simple stress level on the infrastructure are both obvious and substantial. It seems as if the environmentally friendly camper is actually subsidizing the energy hog. 


Not so much...

Nature lover?

Some aspects of the new campground at Winnipeg Beach seem to me to illustrate the heart of the issue.

While beautiful and well managed, it begs several interesting questions.

Apparently we have spent 8 million or so creating a sustainable, energy efficient, eco-friendly place for Manitobans and visitors to spend some time while enjoying Lake Winnipeg.

So what does and ecologically friendly campground look like?

Yes the washroom lights and water heating are solar powered and they tell me ecologically friendly materials were used throughout.

But what I see, looking out from my site, is row after row of carefully manicured and tended sites, featuring carefully leveled graveled pads connected by paved lanes.

What I learned right away was that the sites were fully serviced with no provisions made for those of us who prefer a more low-impact experience. Why do those who simply want a quiet evening by the lake seem almost unwelcome?

I understand why it must have seemed easier to install all services in each site - but again, while we didn't require those services, we still paid the same rate. The rate wasn't that bad - so I didn't think too much about it. On my recent trip to Ontario, some campground prices were much higher - so that's good? Not if I’m subsidizing this monument to wate.

As I sat there surveying the site, the view is of countless large motor homes and fifth wheel trailers towed by large trucks, I didn't even want to think too much about the incredible wasteful fossil fuel consumption, the wear and tear on the roads, and the CO2 emissions the sight represented. It's a free country. We have the right to pollute and conspicuous consumption is somewhat of a birthright. However, I couldn't help wondering about what a deal it was... for them, the energy hogs, the ones with these fully equipped homes on wheels. And I have a nagging suspicion that my provincial government, by providing them with this beautiful lakeside site at this cut-rate cost, is actually loasing money on the deal. Which means that those of us who choose a less wasteful way to enjoy the outdoors are helping them out. Should it feel good to lend a hand to those more financially fortunate than myself?  Is that a policy direction that supports sustainability (let alone justice?)

I wondered right away what sort of "environmentalists" were consulted before this place was constructed. No one really interested in the environment would design a campground wherein the environmentally friendly camper subsidized the gas guzzling energy hog.

It is of course not a campground in any sense of the word, but rather a summer home park, suburbia on wheels, and by providing it, our government is encouraging (did I mentions subsidizing?) extremely wasteful and unsustainable behavior. It's sort of like a reverse green tax.

Walk around the campground on a warm day and two sounds predominate. The hum of air conditioning units and the whine of gasoline powered lawn care devices.

It was somewhat amusing to watch the meticulous lawn care that was keeping staff busy at both Hnausa and Winnipeg Beach. It's a park not the greens at Pebble Beach! While one person was riding the giant gas-powered mower over grass so short that he was having trouble seeing his trail, another was weed-whipping a two foot radius around the trees and down a gully. Totally wasteful and just a symptom of what I mean by lack of environmental sensitivity. And the "Green" features so prominently advertised at the Winnipeg Beach buildings sound good, but the effect was somewhat offset by seeing park trucks idling in front of the building. My point again being that environmental awareness should be part of all employees' daily plan.

Workers prefer to operate machinery, rargher than pull weeds.

I have witnessed the near-constant use of a 4-wheel ATV to do a whole host of near-useless activities. What happens is that, instead of planning a circuit to do maintenance or cleaning tasks, staff hop on this machine, cross the entire park, perform a small task like moving a picnic table, then return. (We observed exactly that!).  These machines are just too tempting - who could resist a bit of joy riding? Whoever made the decision to purchase these toys was not only incredibly environmentally insensitive, but also naive as to their usefulness.
And then there are the lawn mowers and trimmers. I realize that there aren’t many viable alternatives to the big ride-on mower used, but we need to make reasonable decisions as to how often grass needs to be mowed. There are now electric alternatives for small mowers and trimmers.  I know it will take time and money to phase out these machines, but I think a Parks Department is definitely the place to start such changes.

A weed whipper was used when an electric mower would be more appriopriate.

These weeds could use a little pulling.

At one time on an otherwise peaceful morning, there were three staff using gas powered implements, doing relatively unnecessary tasks.  I watched one worker use a gas power trimmer to trim the edge of the lawn along the beach - totally unnecessary.
What is effectively a bias in favour of less-sustainable camping was further illustrated on a recent trip to Spruce Woods, where our large family group occupied a large group-use site. We, with our small car and tent were charged the same as those who brought in fifth wheel trailers and trucks. I don't think there is any question that our impact in terms of general upkeep and environmental footprint was substantially less. Same price though.

I have noted one positive change. The Beach Patrols at Winnipeg Beach and Grand Beach don't appear to be using jet skis for routine patrol. But small changes aside, I fear that the issue still comes down to a sustainability mindset. I fear that many Parks employees, even at the management level, lack the kind of sensitivity to environmental issues that would allow them to notice the things I have pointed out. Ultimately, direction from the top is required, the question being, is there a will to move our Manitoba Parks in a direction that really models a concern for the environment?
Another concern was the use of Personal Watercraft near the campground and beach.  Once again… noisy and polluting. These vehicles have no place near a Provincial Campground. Why would we continue to allow the self-serving pleasure of a few insensitive individuals take priority over the rights of the majority of campers who would like a clean lake and peaceful surroundings?
Campgrounds are full of large camper trailers or motor homes. Sites can have as many as three vehicles, many sites have a tent as well.  Many have brought in a whole variety of furniture, barbecues, etc. This isn’t camping, these are low-rent summer homes.  A common practice seems to be for someone to set up camp and then have a few friends over for the evenings. The point is; these users pay the same fee as us, but in terms of environmental impact and in terms of use of resources - we’re much more profitable as clients. Shouldn’t a fee structure promote non-intrusive low impact use of natural resources?
Some years ago I wrote to the Minster of the Environment outlining some of the above concerns. A staffer replied, acknowledging my concerns and helpfully reminded me that I could find unserviced spots another half hour down the road that might meet my needs. Thanks. Those of us who want to do the right thing should drive farther and take second best. It reminds me of when many restaurant non-smoking section were too small and not as well located as the smoking section. Talk about not getting it!

My observations cause me to ask if this is what we want from our provincial park campgrounds? Couldn't we leave that sort of the thing to private enterprise?

My solution is simple. In all aspects of government services we need to make sure that the incentive or advantage favours, and thus encourages, environmentally responsible behavior. All I need is a small grassy area to set up our tent - that doesn't cost much to create or maintain. Was it too much to hope for that the new development at Winnipeg Beach, evidently designed with large camping vehicles in mind, might have a small tenting-only area? And while we're at it why shouldn't the environmentally friendly camper get the nice spots for a change?

Some quick recommendations:
1. Upper management should visit a few parks as customers and observe. There are often much better ways to do things.
2. Staff at parks should spend a little less time on lawn care and more on other tasks. Enforcing existing rules would be a useful task.
3. Environmentally friendly practices should be the norm. All policies and procedures should encourage promote respect for the environment.
4. We need to recognize the difference between people who come to campground to enjoy nature and people who come to visit and party. Both can be accommodated - but it’s two different things. We’ve asked before about the possibility of more tent-only vehicle-free quiet zones.
As a citizen concerned with the environment, interested in quiet non-intrusive getaways, and I believe that Parks Management should be working towards providing more opportunities of that nature.

Ken Storie