OTTAWA - Parks Canada says delays are behind the agency leaving more than $30 million on the table for conservation efforts last year.
The agency’s annual performance report shows Parks Canada spent $140.7 million on national park and historic site conservation in 2013-14, less than the $172.1 million they had originally budgeted.
Most of the difference is accounted for in parks conservation, which was $25.9 million under budget last year. Underspending on species at risk, historic sites, marine conservation areas and “other” historic sites make up the rest.
In a statement, the agency attributed the unspent cash to delays in conservation and restoration programs, and said they’ve got another year to get the money out the door.
“Delays or postponement of projects can also result from issues related to procurement, changes in project scope, technical challenges and a limited seasonal window to undertake work,” spokeswoman Christina Triconi wrote in an email.
“Parks Canada prioritizes capital investment projects to address risks. The agency’s multi-year appropriate authority allows funds to be used over a two-year period.”
The agency has long complained of “chronic underfunding” for infrastructure and conservation efforts at some of Canada’s most iconic locations. Actual spending on “heritage resources conservation” has declined over the past three years from $158.8 million in 2011-12 to $140.7 million last year.
At the same time, spending on establishing new parks and historic sites has risen from $14.2 million in 2011 to $27.8 million in 2013-14, and is expected to hit $43.4 million next year.
NDP environment critic Megan Leslie said the trend is troubling for the agency, which is struggling under $2.77 billion in deferred maintenance.
“It’s not just about patting yourself on the back and saying ‘Look, we’re creating a new park.’ It’s about actually preserving the natural and cultural heritage in parks we already have and thinking about how we move forward,” Leslie said in an interview on Friday.
“What (the government needs) to stop doing is worrying about what goes on the glossy brochure and actually working on the issues that are at hand.”
The Toronto Star requested an interview with Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s office and Parks Canada officials for this story. The department sent a statement instead.
According to documents obtained by the Star in July, Parks Canada is on pace to cut more than $27 million from it’s $659.7 million 2014-15 budget, including cuts to operating seasons at national parks, the elimination of guided tours at some historic sites and eliminating staff positions while contracting out more work.
Last year, Parks Canada had 111 fewer employees working on conservation efforts than they had originally budgeted. Across the organization, there were 338 fewer “full-time equivalent” positions — a 7.9-per-cent decrease compared to the 4,278 full-time employees budgeted for.
In their last budget, the governing Conservatives committed almost $400 million over five years for priority infrastructure projects at Parks Canada. The money is back-ended, however, meaning the majority of the funding is scheduled to come in the last couple of years, and so subject to future political decisions.
A consultant’s report obtained by the Star showed that Parks Canada would have to almost triple spending on maintenance to keep crumbling assets in good repair.
While the agency has spent an average of $119 million over the last decade on upkeep, the report suggests Parks Canada would need to spend $351 million a year to keep its assets in “an appropriate state of repair” over the assets’ serviceable life.