After a roughly three-month closure to suppress the spread of COVID-19, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve has begun reopening certain areas of its landscape to visitors, but not everyone is ready to rev up the welcome wagon.
The Park Reserve announced a limited opening on June 4 with measures in place to prevent visitors from venturing near the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation communities of Ty-Histanis and Esowista, located within the Park Reserve’s borders.
Ty-Histanis resident Hjalmer Wenstob told the Westerly News last week that he has been “shocked” at the number of tourists he’s seen visiting the area and “underwhelmed” by the amount of signage in place to advise those visitors not to travel north of Incinerator Rock.
“There has been a few reports of people walking through the community, which is definitely a frustrating thing since we’ve been working so hard to keep the community locked down for so long,” Wenstob said. “We’ve all been trying so hard to maintain that social distance, stay in our communities and only travel for essential needs, and then to see tourists walking through the community is definitely pretty upsetting.”
He said the Tla-o-qui-aht’s emergency operations team did a “great” job of being proactive in the early days of the pandemic, setting up blockades to close the communities to travellers and setting up food delivery systems to help cut down on travel requirements.
He added he was surprised to see the Park Reserve reopen while Tla-o-qui-aht communities remained closed and suggested the reopening should have been limited to West Coast residents, without inviting travellers in from outside the region.
“I’m not worried about our local communities who’ve been waiting for months now to come and walk the beach with the kids, that’s not something we’re afraid of because we know those locals are going to respect our communities,” he said. “That’s fine and I think that’s what the idea of reopening the Park could be, but we’re not seeing that. We’re seeing a lot of out of town visitors…That’s what’s really becoming upsetting because those people don’t know of our communities of Esowista and Ty Histanis and they don’t know of the work we’re doing to lock down. It’s not any malice to come walk through the community, they’re just coming up to see what’s here, but that puts extra risk on our elders and our immunocompromised people and that’s where the frustration really lies.”
The Westerly News reached out to Parks Canada for comment on Wenstob’s concerns and a spokesperson said the Park Reserve continues to coordinate its reopening with its Indigenous partners.
“At this time, the West Coast Trail and Broken Group Islands are not permitting overnight stays. These experiences will not be available during the COVID-19 pandemic unless local First Nations support this step,” the spokesperson said. “In the Long Beach Unit, Parks Canada continues to have ongoing discussions with First Nations partners to ensure local communities are comfortable with our limited visitor offer…There are signs instructing visitors not to head north of Incinerator Rock. These are located at Incinerator Rock itself, as well as each of the Long Beach access trails. There is also a sandwich board with this information at high tide. More signs are being developed to ensure visitors do not miss this closure information.”
They said that Junior Guardian Programs are being launched to help educate visitors on where they can and cannot go.
“The health and safety of community members, visitors, employees and all Canadians is of the utmost importance. Only places and activities where health and safety risks can be managed, and supported by local First Nations and adjacent communities, will be available for visitation,” they said.
They added that all visitors must follow provincial and federal travel requirements, including mandatory isolation.
“Due to the nature of shared and common spaces at Parks Canada campgrounds, visitors must complete any requirements for self-isolation before arriving to camp at a Parks Canada place. It is not possible to complete self-isolation periods at Parks Canada campgrounds,” they said. “Additionally, given limitations on international travel, all existing reservations from international visitors—including visitors from the United States of America—arriving up to and including August 7, 2020, will be cancelled and refunded in full.”
Wenstob said he understands the importance of welcoming tourists back to the region, but suggested it’s still too soon for widespread re-openings.
“There’s just so many unknowns at this point that we have to make sure that we take every precautious step. Opening too early could be really detrimental and dangerous to everyone on the coast, not just our small communities here at Long Beach, but all of our communities and that’s where we’re really trying to find a balance,” he said.
“I don’t know if anyone has the right answer at this point, which is why a lot of us are urging to slow down a little bit.”