VANCOUVER -- It appears a controversial day pass pilot program brought in last summer to limit hiking capacity at six popular provincial parks could be coming back this year. That would be bad news for mountain advocacy groups and backcountry organizations, who are urging BC Parks and the Ministry of Environment to scrap the program completely.

“I think our parks certainly rolled this out in haste and did not take time to have a sound plan,” said Chris Ludwig, president of the BC Mountaineering Club. “We don’t need trail gatekeepers, we need trail builders.”

The BC Parks day use pass pilot project was launched on July 27, 2020, to safely manage visitor use during peak season in some of the province’s most popular parks. It required hikers to secure a day pass for Cypress, Mount Seymour, Garibaldi, Golden Ears, Mount Robson (Berg Lake Trail) and Stawamus Chief (Chief Peaks Trail).

Passes were available beginning at 6 a.m. each day for same-day park visits and each park had a maximum number of passes. According to BC Parks, the purpose of the pilot program was to alleviate parking issues, crowding and congestion at some trailheads, mitigating COVID-19 concerns in the process.

Recreation groups say the program missed the mark, left people out and even forced others to trails that they may not have been prepared for.

"Literally locking people out of parks with gates is not something we thought was the smartest move," said Taryn Eyton, president of the Friends of Garibaldi Park Society. "It made it more difficult to access parks in a time when our health authorities are telling us that going outside is good for our physical and mental health."

Meanwhile, it’s clear people are visiting B.C. parks in greater numbers, and the province is increasing its investment in them. During the next three years, the BC Parks operating and capital budgets will increase by more than $83 million.

BC Parks is now gathering feedback on the day use pilot project through an online survey, but critics of the program argue now is not the time to be limiting access to the parks.

“We should actually be opening up trails, not constraining them," said Paul Kubik, director of cabins and trails for the BC Mountaineering Club. “I think the point is quite clear. It's to reduce the number of people coming into the park, but we've taken the opposite position that the way to handle overcapacity is actually improve existing trails and to build more trails. What we're getting is people somewhere in the bowels of BC Parks coming up with a system they think is great, but the public says, ‘No, it's awful.’"

The province has not yet confirmed if or when the day pass program could be coming back this summer. If it does in fact return, recreation groups say they would at least like to see better access to the passes, including opening up availability much sooner than the day the pass is valid and potentially only limiting the day pass program to the busier weekends and holidays.

In a statement, the Ministry of Environment said the day pass program has been “an effective tool” for managing growing demand from park users.

“Park visitations in the South Coast have increased by 57 per cent, from over 6.5 million visitors in 2010 to more than 10.3 million visitors in 2019,” the ministry said. “If this trend continues, we will see 16 million visits to parks on the South Coast by 2029. Overuse of our trails leads to trail widening, soil erosion, damaged vegetation and altered hydrology. That’s not good for the long-term health of our treasured provincial parks.”

The ministry also noted that crowding can have negative effects on the visitor experience, park staff and public safety.

“Now more than ever, it’s important for British Columbians to experience nature, but to do so in a way that is safe and protects ourselves and our loved ones,” the ministry said. “The free day pass has proven to be an effective tool to manage growing demand, the continued health of our parks and the safety of British Columbians. Day use passes also manage the number of people traveling to busy parks, reducing traffic congestion on our parking lots and roadways.”