A Q&A with CPAWS MB Executive Director Ron Thiessen
What is the Current State of Manitoba’s Trails?
Manitoba has a spectacular network of trails that is being enjoyed by Manitobans more now than ever before. We are blessed with more than 1,700 kilometres of trails spread across the province. As a safe activity during the pandemic, exploring our wild spaces has become an integral part of maintaining well-being for many during this unusual time. Connecting with nature heals what ails.
While some of our trails are being maintained, many have fallen victim to neglect. For example, we have witnessed toppled and missing trail direction signs in Whiteshell Provincial Park, Asessippi Provincial Park and others. This is a huge liability. We are concerned that people may get lost and that could be disastrous.
We are hopeful that the $7 million investment in trails announced by the province in October 2020 will address these safety concerns. As a social and health service, Manitoba needs to continue to invest in our trails network to ensure they are safe and accessible.
How Does Spending Time Outdoors Improve Our Well-Being?
There is a wide array of evidence that shows spending time in nature improves mental and physical health, boosts immunity and reduces risk of disease. Connecting with the natural world has been shown to improve sleep and augment vitamin D levels. It also boosts endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promotes happiness.
Healthy forests, lakes and wetlands are also working to protect our physical health even when we’re not out in nature. They clean our air, filter our water and act as a protective shield against the worsening impacts of climate change.
How Can Trails Improve the Local Economy?
Trails provide numerous economic benefits, according to a recent report from the Conference Board of Canada.
Trail construction and maintenance increases income and employment in the region where the trail is built. Trails attract tourists and local visitors, whose spending in turn leads to other positive economic impacts. Trails also support local businesses and increase property values near the trail.
What Are the Current Threats to Our Trails and Natural Spaces?
Many of our most beloved trails — including large portions of the Great Trail of Canada — are in landscapes that are not formally protected from industrial development. Without adequate conservation measures and land management strategies, these trails could be damaged or even lost to us completely. We are also concerned that if wildlife habitats are not adequately maintained, the trails will become too quiet with fewer wildlife sightings and less birdsong.
Climate change is already impacting our trails and will continue to do so at an accelerated pace. Wildfires are becoming more intense and more frequent, and the area burned every year will double in the coming decades.
A more localized — and easier to address — potential threat is that the province is considering charging users a fee for using trails. This will create a disincentive for some and pose a barrier for others. It’s critical that Manitoba adequately resources our trails system through the provincial budget for the benefit of all citizens, not just the ones who can pay out of pocket.
We launched that campaign in October 2020 in response to a controversial request for proposal that indicated the province is looking to potentially decommission and sell off provincial parks while also seeking greater “financial sustainability” for the parks that remain.
The province is also in the process of developing a new trails strategy.
We are concerned by a question in the public engagement survey that indicated the provincial government is considering adding user fees to its trail systems.
User fees amount to a double-tax on a core government service: “providing outdoor recreational and educational opportunities and experiences in a natural setting.”
We believe it’s time for a deeper provincial budget investment in park services that will give all Manitobans more and safe opportunities to enjoy nature.
How Would a Potential Privatization of Provincial Parks Affect Trails?
It’s not yet clear what the province plans to do with its parks and trails strategies, as they are presently in an assessment period. It is worth noting that many of our well-used trails are not in provincial parks.
The province has not yet fully responded to concerns raised about a controversial request for proposals to evaluate Manitoba’s parks.
The most worrisome aspect of this proposal is the province is considering giving up ownership of parks, which belong to all Manitobans. Our parks are not for sale. They belong to the people of Manitoba.
We were glad to hear Minister of Conservation and Climate Sarah Guillemard tell CBC News that “the province will always maintain jurisdictional control over all provincial parks.”
However, this does not address concerns that some parks could be decommissioned, nor does it mean that these parks would maintain their protected status. We need more information.
We are also concerned by the Minister’s assertion that “it’s necessary for Manitoba’s provincial parks to become financially sustainable.” As parks and trails are a core health and social service, this should not be a goal.
What Should the Manitoba Government Be Doing to Help People Benefit from Nature?
We commend the Manitoba government for a $7 million investment in trails announced in October 2020. As a social and health service, Manitoba needs to do what it takes to ensure our trails network has the necessary resources from the provincial budget to ensure trails are safe and accessible to all.
In regard to our parks and wild places, we are hopeful the recent increase in use of these important areas will inspire the Manitoba government to up its game by providing the resources required to properly maintain and manage existing wild areas as well as launch and support existing initiatives to establish new protect lands and waters for nature.
Canada has set necessary targets to protect 25% of the nation’s wild lands and waters by 2025 and 30% by 2030.
Manitoba presently has no targets or timelines for safeguarding our wild places that store carbon, support cherished cultures and lifestyles, enhance our health and well-being and are home to hundreds of wildlife species, many of which are at risk due to habitat loss.
Manitoba needs to ramp up its efforts and become part of the solution by helping Canada meet these critical targets. Otherwise, our legacy left to our youth and yet-to-be-born will be one of impairing their future when we had the chance to get it right.
How Can Trails Better Connect Us to Nature and Engage People in Conservation?
Trails are many people’s entry point to exploring nature. Connecting with nature creates awareness of its beauty and wonder and interpretive trail signage can help to better understand and appreciate its many values. We know at CPAWS that often the first step to helping to conserve nature is to experience it firsthand. We protect what we love.
What Is CPAWS Doing to Help People Stay Connected to Nature During the Pandemic?
One positive aspect of the pandemic is that people have been spending more time outdoors and establishing meaningful connections with nature. This connection to nature fuels a desire to protect and improve our natural spaces.
It hasn’t been easy for us to gather in person this year to learn from one another and rally for change, so CPAWS Manitoba launched a webinar series to help us connect for conservation online.