Grasslands National Park balances primitive appeal with dynamic programming

Elisabeth Dowson
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The appeal of a primitive prairie ecosystem that time seems to have forgotten is both a major drawing card for Grasslands National Park and also one of its biggest challenges, noted Katherine Patterson, Park Superintendent, at the recent 49 x 110 Swift Current Spring Tourism event.

Patterson came with a long wish list of basic infrastructure items that would make Grasslands National Park an engaging and safe attraction all year, including road upgrades, food and fuel availability, sanitation facilities, shelter from heat and wind and directional signage.

Justifying the cost to develop infrastructure is one of the park’s major hurdles, but on the other hand exponential development could compromise the park’s singular appeal as the world’s best dark sky preserve and the only national park in Canada to protect and celebrate the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, including the critically endangered Black-footed Ferret and the Black-tailed Prairie Dog.

“The park existed for its first 30 years with no facilities whatsoever inside our park. About three years ago we got blue plastic biffies,” Patterson said. “We’re dealing with very primitive things.”

Patterson noted that some groups such as children, seniors and those with special needs simply can not enjoy a day in the park without easy access to washroom facilities at multiple locations along park trails and roads.

“Signs are very expensive,” Patterson added, “so just to do basic signage for both blocks of the park is a $1 million investment. We have to work with highways and road allowances. We just don’t have enough budget at this point to put signage at every decision point. It’s happened to me before that I got lost - no idea whether to go left or right, and I was low on gas.”

Late last fall, Val Marie, the Park’s nearest village, lost its only gas station and a new operator has yet to be recruited.

“Fortunately it was the tail end of the season so only two or three dozen people got stranded and had to be helped out, but when we head into next operating season with thousands of visitors, we just don’t know if we have the critical mass to attract a card lock, and if we do, it’s not going to be this summer.”

Compounding all of these issues is the lack of cell phone service for those who do get lost or run out of gas. “We just put in an emergency phone last year, but someone would have to know how to find that.”

In the village of Val Marie, with a population of 100, food availability is another issue.

“We don’t quite know how to handle that,” Patterson admitted. “We have limited food. A second restaurant opened up in Val Marie with unusual California fusion that’s attracting visitors,” she said, “but in the evening there’s nothing open except the café and we’re not in a mindset yet that we are a visitor village.”

In contrast, the Grasslands Gallery is drawing visitors who are “willing to drop more than a dime, so they’re now selling $1000 art. Somebody’s making a full time living off commissions from the art.”

Patterson challenges people in the region to “to ignore limitations and the realities of decay and depopulation, and believe in ourselves, our potential and our bright future.”

Grasslands Park’s uniqueness extends to its singular visitor profile and extensive programming.

“We’re an anomaly in all of the province. Our visitation patterns look nothing like Batoche or Prince Albert. There’s a huge proportion of international visitors coming to Grasslands, where most of the other parks have the majority of their visitors coming from the prairie provinces.”

Those international visitors come for the very things that may be at risk if the park grows too quickly: the esoteric sounds of Nature, undisturbed by technology; the meditative, humbling vistas; the pre-contact and palaeontological heritage; species at risk; and the dark sky preserve that redefines night.

“We now have a payroll expected this summer of about $1.5 million in a village of 100 people and we are also going to have 51 people on our payroll at the peak of the season, so we are growing. Seven of those people are going to be in our East Block. Two years ago we had one seasonal maintenance person in East Block, so I’m very excited.”

Some of the programs planned for this season include the Rock Creek Star Party with the Astronomical Society of Canada on June 8, the Rock Creek Celebration July 5, Tribes and Trails in the Uplands on July 7, a family friendly fossil hunt called Badlands Blast in the East Block on July 26, and a Sleep-Under-The-Stars party August 17.

Every Friday evening throughout July and August at both the Frenchman Valley and Rock Creek campgrounds, visitors can have fun with Fireside Chats, Stories and S’More. Guided Walks in the Park are available every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30 a.m. in July and August.

Patterson observed that “92 per cent of people who visited one of our historic sites or parks say they would rate Parks Canada in one of their top ten national priorities, right up there with health care and the economy, but only 20 per cent of non visitors agree.”

The challenge is to attract more visitors without compromising the park’s inherent appeal. “The more people we have, the more services and programs we need to provide, but we’re not ready to grow in an un-calibrated fashion.

“We need to become as cute and cuddly as the polar bear is in the Coca Cola campaign ... and have some excitement around the programs and the work that we’re doing.”

She noted that You Tube videos of their Black-footed Ferret reintroduction program have generated tremendous global interest, and the recent creation of the Cypress Hills Destination Area promises to drive even more tourists to Grasslands.

“We’re better and stronger together than we are by ourselves. If you have a joint strategy for a broader area - things like the Cypress Hills Destination Area - and you crystalize what that purpose is, and that vision is colourful and detailed, then there’s something magical about it ... to orient and align all of those people in the same direction that creates the critical mass.”

For more information, visit http://www.visitcypresshills.ca/what-to-do/grasslands-national-park/ to see the extensive list of summer programs and scheduled events, or to book a Grasslands experience online.

Organizations: Astronomical Society of Canada, Parks Canada, Grasslands National Park

Geographic location: California, Grasslands, Grasslands Park Val Marie Swift Current Canada Prairie Dog East Block Cypress Hills Destination Area Frenchman Valley Rock Creek

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