FOR years, Bahamians have used parks throughout the country without paying a penny. We took it for granted the government would cover the expense of keeping our inland and beachfront parks and adjoining parking lots paved, landscaped and cleaned or would lean on corporate benefactors. That is the case with Montagu foreshore, for instance, which before the Public Parks and Public Beaches Authority came into being in 2014, was shared by Ministry of Works and a number of corporate sponsors, including Atlantis, Atlantic Medical, Bahamas Realty, Coca-Cola, Ernst & Young, Higgs & Johnson, KPMG and the Chinese Embassy. Those sponsors still pay a monthly fee, helping to cover the costs.
Most of the national parks are operated, managed and maintained by the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) which, despite a $1.4m allotment from government in 2016, finished the year with a slight loss because the costs to manage and maintain 32 parks across 11 islands plus other programmes is so great. BNT’s programmes touch on every part of our natural and manmade environment from protecting fisheries to preparing for climate change. While the Trust does a yeoman’s job with the parks, we think it needs to increase visibility and information, telling its story better to non-members. Every one of the Trust’s parks has a distinct identity tying it to the local culture or a feature unique to the area. But messaging takes money and for far too long, organisations like the BNT have depended upon patrons, legacy donations, major fund-raisers that take energy to organize. They have begged their way to survival and that just is not right.
And what should be the greatest national park of all, Clifton Heritage, is instead a national disgrace, a dumping ground for abandoned equipment, as pointed out in former Tribune News Editor Athena Damianos’ excellent, if heartbreaking, piece in yesterday’s Tribune. An ice machine, tossed on its side, now a resting place for empty beer bottles. A gate, once a proud entry, now rusted and fallen, its mission disbanded to serve as the entrance to artist Antonius Roberts’ Sacred Space’ with statues painstakingly carved from local trees depicting slave women facing Africa, longing to return to the land of their birth. Slave kitchens and plantation buildings dating back hundreds of years, a find considered so monumental it was put into the hands of the specially created Clifton Heritage Authority, now awash in weeds and bush.
We underuse and over abuse our parks and park privileges. Part of our lack of respect comes with getting the right to stomp on the ground free. The thought of paying to enter a park seems anathema to Bahamians who believe the land, trees, birds and flamingoes or forests are our natural birthright and to suggest paying for the right to be where we already belong is heresy. We do not like the thought of having to pay any more than you do, but we have to be realistic.
We are sure Americans and Canadians feel the same that parks like the Grand Canyon in the US and Banff in Canada are their land, why should they pay? But if there was reluctance at first, they have adjusted and they understand the need to provide park revenue. The fee to enter Grand Canyon National Park is $15 for an individual, $25 for a motorcycle and $30 for a vehicle. In Banff, where fees go toward “maintaining historic sites for your visit and for future preservation so that our next generation can enjoy and experience their natural beauties” just went to $9.80 per adult in January, $8.30 for seniors or $19.60 per family. Both parks allow children in for free and Grand Canyon designates certain holidays as free days. Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Florida charges $6 per car. County parks vary but there are few places you can go without paying something.
Maybe it is time for our free ride to end. It is at least time to begin the national conversation about paying to open an access gate. Even a small amount, $1 per person or $2 per car, would help cover costs and allow those responsible to create more beautiful green spaces and interesting exhibits or wildlife.
It is a bitter pill, hard to swallow, but may be the only medicine that stops disregard and abuse and provides for the kind of beauty that requires effort and expense.
We see the possible and admire it every time we pass the roundabouts on Baha Mar Blvd. Our parks could be just as stunning though each in a different way if only we had the funds to operate them as they should be. And those funds are in the hands and pockets of users. Small change, a $1 entry fee forgiven on Boxing Day, Easter and Independence, could make a large difference.