Friday, July 29, 2011

A century of caring for B.C. parks - until now

The B.C. parks system marked its 100th birthday this spring. So how are things going?
As an enthusiastic camper, I can attest that the campsites are still lovely, the scenery amazing, and the pit toilets tolerable. By the numbers, though, I think British Columbians have cause to be a little concerned.
It’s been a hard 10 years for BC Parks. Park operations were among the first to be targeted for cuts by former premier Gordon Campbell, whose government closed campgrounds, scrapped forest-reserve sites, dumped interpretative programs and jacked up user fees soon after taking office.
Visits fell by almost four million the year after the 2002 cuts. They’ve never fully recovered, and took another turn for the worse this past year.
Some 19.2 million people visited a B.C. park in 2010-11. That’s down a million from the previous year, and not even close to the 25 million visitors of the mid-1990s. Satisfaction ratings are slipping as well, falling below the 80-per-cent mark for the first time in years.
B.C. Liberals have been enthusiastic proponents of handing off public services to the private sector during their tenure. Private interests now run everything from hospital food preparation and health care to children’s group homes, seniors’ care, employment training and parks. The Socreds had dabbled with privatizing some parks functions in the 1980s, but now virtually all park and campground management has been privatized.
Thinking like a B.C. Liberal, I’d probably argue that it doesn’t really matter who’s running things. People could count on pulling into a nice, clean campground back when government was renting the spot, and they still can.
Sure, they’re paying a little more for the experience, but the taxpayer is paying less. Sure, it bugged visitors when they started being charged for parking, but isn’t it nice that a new premier has rescinded that? Everybody’s happy.
Well, almost. As both a taxpayer and a parks user, I’m feeling a bit taken advantage of. What used to be a cheap night in the woods now feels like something of a shakedown.
Might that have anything to do with why park visits have fallen 20 per cent in the last 15 years?
Here’s a summer night of camping at Bamberton Provincial Park as an example.
The place looks like a deal at $16 a night. But you’ll need to add in the $6-a-night reservation fee that you’re probably going to opt for in the high season.
Then there’s the $7-a-night firewood purchase. The $8 a night for a permit for an extra car to park at your site. The $5 to dump your holding tanks if you’re in a trailer or motor home. Oh, and don’t forget the HST.
Camping revenues have risen 27 per cent since 2006-07, even while camping visits have flatlined. The increase is all due to higher fees.

You get access to a beautiful little piece of B.C. for all those fees, absolutely. But what you don’t get is the power, water, swimming pool, video arcade and store, cable TV and horseshoe pit being offered at the private campground up the road for about the same money.
A provincial park does give you a serene camping experience that few private campsites can rival. But falling visitor numbers - now forecast to stall at around 19 million for the next three years - make it pretty clear that more than a few park visitors aren’t feeling the love.
Meanwhile, a decade-long focus on cutting costs has had a serious impact on the development of new park facilities.  The Socreds built thousands of vehicle-accessible campsites during their tenure. The New Democrats built 1,500. The Liberals haven’t built a single one.
I admire private enterprise for its amazing ability to find new ways of turning a profit. We couldn’t live without the energy and drive of capitalists. I don’t mean to criticize the work of the private sector, or knock the quality of operations in the parks system.
But really, is this what we want for our parks? The private sector is great at making money, but should that be the primary goal for the B.C. parks system? Where’s the vision?
Some things just aren’t suited to the private sector.  Not everything is meant to be a revenue-generating opportunity. After 100 years of public investment, it’s downright shameful to be part of the generation that measures success by how little our government spends on parks.
Happy birthday, BC Parks. At your age, we ought to be showing you more respect.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

If families are first, who's second?

My TC colleague Dave Obee usually writes about history when he's not writing editorials for the paper, but I think I like him best when he gets a little edgy and sarcastic, as he does in today's amusing (and dead-on) riff on Premier Christy Clark's "Families First" slogan. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Add  R&B singer Amy Winehouse to the infamous 27 Club - she was found dead today in London. What a loss - love that woman's voice and musical style. But some people just have too big a monkey on their back, and I always got the impression that Winehouse's was gorilla-size. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Yes, kids, Grandma does drugs

There’s no planning for an event like Grandma’s Big Talk On Drugs, but I’ve been waiting for the opportunity for a while now as my oldest grandchildren close in on the teen years.
The chance came on Monday, while I was driving four of my five grandsons home to the Comox Valley after a couple weeks of Island travel and camping.
The oldest two are 11 and 12, and well familiar with kids not much older than them using alcohol and illegal drugs.  I knew there’d be a moment one day soon when I could jump in with a word or two on the subject.
I don’t know how it came up - not at my behest, that’s for sure, because the only hope you’ve got of getting a fledgling adolescent to hear you is if you wait for them to bring something up. At any rate, one of the boys said something about drug use, and all of a sudden the door opened.
As was the case when I was their age, my two oldest grandsons are surrounded by people who drink and use illegal drugs. I was 13 when I smoked my first joint, introduced to it by a school pal whose older brother was a teenage science whiz cranking out acid for eager buyers.
I’d already started drinking to get drunk by that point, which I would continue with great enthusiasm for the next three years. I know my mother will be deeply embarrassed that I’m admitting such a thing, but Mom, it’s not your fault. I just came of age in the ‘70s.
My grandsons’ generation have had the added impact of being completely immersed in cultural references to drug use, from TV shows to movies to Web sites like YouTube. This is the generation that can check out photos of their dopey older cousin with a joint in his mouth just by clicking on his Facebook site. No kid today grows up in a vacuum about drugs.
So I figure the options are to either have a frank conversation to prepare kids for those intense teen years, or assume responsibility for sending the poor little sods into high-risk territory without a lick of sense to fall back on.
I have fairly vivid memories of being that kid, teenage drug use being something that my parents’ generation simply hadn’t considered much. In the end, nothing too bad happened to me.  But that was sheer luck.
I always wanted better for my own kids and grandkids - and yours. But I fear that in the 40 years since my generation was being scared with bad-acid movies in guidance class, “just say no” still prevails as the central message to young people. It remains an important message, of course, but hardly the only one.
Years ago a young relative of mine, in Grade 6 at the time, pinned a “Just Say No” poster from a school presentation to his bedroom door, declaring with conviction that he would never use drugs. It hung there for years, through the earnest times and on into irony.
Like me, and maybe you, he has grown into a good and responsible person despite having used drugs as a teen. Most people do. Would it kill us to mention that to our kids once in a while?
My grandsons wanted to know if it was true that crack and crystal meth were addictive after just one use, and whether I agreed that heroin was the worst drug of all. I parsed that first answer carefully, wanting to stress what rotten drugs crack and crystal meth are without portraying them as instant tickets to doom.
Heroin - well, that took a little longer, and gave me the chance to talk about the drug with the most catastrophic potential, alcohol. “Alcohol is a drug?” asked the 11-year-old with much surprise.
As for marijuana, what’s left to say? It’s not a harmless drug, but most B.C. kids over the age of five could probably name that scent what with so many of their parents and grandparents still smoking the stuff. I settled for telling the boys that some studies have found chronic, heavy marijuana use during adolescence is detrimental to brain function.
I doubt they’ll retain much of our talk, but I hope they got my point about making informed choices should it come to that. Kids, just say know.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How are we doing in B.C. now that government is fixated on getting rock-bottom prices from the private sector for contract work? Not so good, apparently, as these immigrants hung out to dry have found out after being exploited and then stiffed by a silviculture company hired by the province.
This one won't turn out to be such a "deal" for taxpayers by the time lost wages and seriously substandard work standards are accounted for. Have to wonder how it's worked out for the new forest these guys were supposed to be planting, too. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Two weeks of camping are now behind me, and the hordes of grandsons that I seem to have accumulated (OK, five, but they've got big energy) have made their way back to their respective homes. And isn't it just like the sun to start shining on the very day that I return to my work.
But I've promised myself to quit griping about the bad weather - it's tedious, I'm sure. I've got a new project, to write a daily haiku as a way of detailing some aspect of each day, and am determined to find the "poetry" in life's simple moments for at least as long as I manage to stick to this new discipline of haiku journalling.
Here's the link to the site, should you want to take a look. I wouldn't call it art, but hey, it's authentic.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Keep the wrinkles

I watched part of “Burlesque” the other night on TV. The movie was quite awful, but never mind - the really terrible part was seeing what beautiful wild-child Cher has done to herself.
With my aging face looking back at me every morning from the mirror, I completely get the pull of cosmetic surgery. A tuck here, a lift there - would that be so wrong?
Fortunately, Cher and a long line of other celebrity beauties who have tried to stave off aging are out there to remind me of the enormous price to be paid for giving up your real face.
I’m as susceptible to wildly overpriced potions as the next person when it comes to promises of firmer skin, fewer wrinkles, more lustre or less droop. I don’t pass judgment on any woman for the crazy things she may try in an attempt to stop a completely unstoppable process.
But cosmetic surgery - that’s just not going to be my thing. And I’m thankful to the celebrities for helping me see that. As much as I hate the aging process, I know from looking at them that I’d hate even more to go through it with a face that didn’t belong to me.
I read a magazine article years ago offering tips for preventing wrinkles. The main advice was to smile less, because every smile pressed wrinkles into the skin.
You can laugh at advice like that, as I did (and wrinkle up a little more). But cosmetic surgery and toxins like Botox take that article’s premise to a whole new level. We’re actually altering our faces’ ability to smile at all.
When Cher smiles now, what you see is a slight lifting at the corners of her mouth, a Mona Lisa version of the great big smile she once had. A heavily altered face like hers is just too tight, too stuffed, too deadened to produce a full-on smile anymore.
I can hear every anti-aging salon and cosmetic surgeon in town - and there are a lot of them - preparing retorts right now declaring that great progress has been made in cosmetic procedures, and that there’s no need to look anything other than “refreshed” if you get the right work at the right time, done by the right people.
And that’s probably true to a point.
But think about this, people: Celebrities have all the money they need to buy the best cosmetic procedures out there. They’ve got access to the latest stuff and the most renowned professionals.
And yet their faces still end up ruined. They get maybe five or 10 more years of looking better than expected for someone their age, but then it’s a hard, rough fall from there. 
You think it’s going to be any different for the rest of us?
As the procedures pile up - because really, is one facelift, one eyelid tuck, ever going to be enough? - the price of messing with Mother Nature is revealed.
There are the ridges up high on the cheekbones. The tugged, cat-like eyes. Lips so big and tight they look painful to the touch. A mouth line that pulls horizontally rather than vertically.
Cosmetic surgery doesn’t stop you from feeling emotion, of course. Just don’t expect them to play across your face like they used to. Excess cosmetic work leads to a face so devoid of affect, it wouldn’t be out of place on someone with Parkinson’s disease.
Worse still, everyone starts to look alike. It’s as though Kenny Rogers and Joan Rivers and Dolly Parton were siblings from an odd-looking mannequin family, having given up their former faces for the remarkably similar one that emerges after too much cosmetic surgery.
 At this point, I wish I could trot out the old saw about taking pride in each and every one of my hard-won wrinkles.  Truthfully, were it really possible to hang on to a firm, fabulous face at 54 through some Benjamin Button-like miracle of science, I’d definitely be checking it out.
So I won’t lie and say I like the two crescent lines that now bracket my mouth. But I do like the thought that they’re there because I smile a lot.  I don’t like the furrow between my brows, either. But if that’s what a rich, emotion-filled life with frequent eyebrow contractions leads to, so be it.
Youth is a beautiful thing. But only on youth. Hate the wrinkles, love your face.

Friday, July 08, 2011

High government salaries create divide 

Working ourselves up over the salaries of senior government employees and politicians is something of a tradition in B.C. What surprises me is how little the lather ever leads to.
The Vancouver Sun recently updated its excellent database listing B.C.’s highest paid civil servants, and the statistics highlight a worrying situation we’ve created in this province by paying corporate-level salaries to government employees.
Hundreds of people working for taxpayer-funded government bodies in B.C. now earn salaries of $200,000 or more. The last decade has seen nothing but big, big growth in pay, pensons, benefits and severance packages for government managers.
While average British Columbians have seen their weekly wages inch up a total of 26 per cent since 2001, to $830 a week, senior government managers - in provincial offices, Crown corporations, health services, school districts, universities - have in many cases seen their salaries double in that same period.
While the rest of us were belt-tightening and battening down the hatches over the last two years, the number of public servants earning more than $100,000 a year jumped 22 per cent. Just four per cent of B.C. adults have salaries at that level.
It’s the unseemliness of the thing that troubles me. Children go begging, people with developmental disabilities lose their homes, old people pile up in hospital. And the managers in public service repeatedly get double-digit increases.
Some are even landing bonuses because they’ve cut public services. Think about that. We’re paying extra to be provided with less.
We’ve heard many, many times that these increases are needed to keep B.C. competitive. Running a province/hospital/school district/city is complex. Doesn’t B.C. deserve the best? And don’t we nay-sayers comprehend that the private sector will snap these people up if we don’t compensate them well?
(Never underestimate the power of that argument to jack up salaries. Five managers with B.C. Hydro’s marketing arm saw their salaries skyrocket in 2008-09 after a firm on Wall Street started checking them out for hire. One guy’s salary more than tripled that year, to $629,200.)
I’m sure it must be very hard work to be in a senior government position. Then again, it was very hard work when I ran a small non-profit for a salary of $52,000. I’m not convinced that the public servants earning six-figure salaries are really working two times, four times, even 12 times harder and better than I was in those years.
In a perfect world, everybody would be paid richly for a job well done.
But we’re not talking about a perfect world here. We’re talking about a public system, funded by people who pool their tax money to pay for services that will benefit British Columbians overall. Where’s the rationale for compensating the managers of such a system at ever-increasing amounts while those paying the bills get by on ever-dwindling services?
Is all that expensive governance at least buying us a better province?
As Times Colonist columnist Paul Willcocks noted in a February piece, not really. Citing the most recent report from the government’s own Progress Board, Willcocks found B.C. has at best done a middling job of meeting economic goals in the last decade, and is failing outright on a number of social measures. 
Productivity, personal income and exports per capita have all slipped since 2001. University graduation rates have stagnated.
On infant health, B.C. has fallen from second place to eighth in Canada. Where we were once in the middle of the pack on child poverty, we’re now routinely at the bottom, and have been for eight consecutive years.
And yet the generous pay raises continue. The gulf grows wider between average British Columbians and the government that purports to represent them. The big salaries beget other big increases all around them, because that’s how it works. Everyone wins except for the people paying for it.
This issue has no champions.
The pundits - public servants themselves, for the most part - generally come out on the side of higher public salaries, pointing to provinces where other pundits and governments are saying the same thing. Well-paid people compare themselves to other well-paid people, and not surprisingly conclude that everyone is worth every penny.
People in the public service - or wanting to be - certainly aren’t about to jump on any bandwagon aimed at slowing down salary increases. Even if a senior job isn’t in their future, wage inflation at the top has a ripple effect.
And you and I?  We’ll just keep paying more for less. It’s what we do.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

I'm on vacation for a couple of weeks, and will return   to regular blogging in the week of July 18. In the meantime, I write a column every Friday in the Times Colonist and have left some behind in my absence to run on July 8 and 15 - you'll find them here. 

Friday, July 01, 2011

That something weird is going on with our weather ought to be clear by now, on this July 1 morning that feels more like, what, March? Not exactly what comes to mind when you hear "global warming," but a definite signal that things just aren't like they used to be.
The 2010 State of the Climate report underlines that in a very worrying way. Here's a link to a Nunavut newspaper article that highlights the report's findings, with a link to the report itself at the bottom of the story.