OTTAWA - Cash-strapped Parks Canada is stuck between a rock — or is that Rockies? — and a hard place.
The federal agency is currently consulting the public on a long list of proposed fee hikes for the country's national parks and historic sites, pointing out that the rates have been frozen since 2008 and costs are on the rise.
But at the same time as fees are going up, many services are in decline following $29.2 million in announced budget cuts over the next three years and the resultant 600 jobs lost across the system.
Over the weekend, so-called "Occupy Winter" protesters gathered in some national parks across the country to demand a return of winter services that were abruptly shut down this year. Visitors are left to guide themselves at some historic sites, and visiting seasons have been shortened.
The agency is now looking to contract out some of its operations, including three hot springs in the Rockies and a golf course in Cape Breton.
"As Canadians, we own these parks, they're national treasures, and we need to ensure that the government really provides the appropriate resources to Parks Canada...so that protection is prioritized and it remains accessible to everybody," said Eric Hebert-Daly, national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
To make matters even more complicated, parliamentarians — including Conservatives — have been putting their own pressure on the agency after hearing from unhappy constituents.
In eastern Ontario, Parks Canada's proposal to substantially increase the user fees along the Rideau Canal and Trent-Severn Waterway was greeted with a backlash.
The agency has already backed down from its proposal only two weeks into the consultation, restoring the concept of a day pass or season's pass at more discounted rates.
"If you make it too expensive, people won't use it, and it'll be self-defeating in terms of raising more revenue," said Conservative MP Gord Brown, whose riding includes large swaths of the Rideau Canal.
"I'm happy to see that they've gone back to the drawing board and I and my colleagues along the Rideau and the Trent-Severn were hearing a lot from our constituents."
Andrew Campbell, vice-president of external relations and visitor experience at Parks Canada, said the agency was given the green light to increase fees as the economy began to rebound. Most of the increases are tied to the rate of inflation.
"We still believe that we have an excellent value, if you consider an adult pass to go in for a day into any of our national parks even with the increase will just be $10," he said, noting the current rate is $9.80.
"That's still a reasonable amount, and much less than plenty of other leisure activities that people can do for a day."
But the timing of the fee increases are also being questioned.
The Union of National Employees, which counts about 3,100 Parks Canada staff in its ranks, says it makes no sense to have slashed services and jobs, only to then turn around and start increasing fees.
"They didn't think it through at the time, they announced the cuts before they announced the possible revenue to offset the cuts, and one of the reasons it's so hot is that they didn't consult with anybody," said Eddie Kennedy, the union's national executive vice-president.
"They didn't go into any of these small communities, they didn't on a national scale or regional scale say, 'This is what we intend to do, what does the Canadian public think about it?' Now they're paying the price for it."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version carried an incorrect figure for announced budget cuts.