UPDATE: Crown land camping and Ontario Parks camping will re-open as of 12:01 a.m. Friday, June 11, 2021.
The prohibition on Crown land camping is one of the few remaining barriers for people wanting to get out fishing and hunting right now.
If you fish and hunt solely in southern Ontario, the needle on your give-a-care meter might not move with this issue because you are back to, or at least nearing pre-pandemic fishing and hunting access. But, for many others though, Crown land camping goes hand-in-glove with fishing and hunting, so the closure has put a real damper on pursuing spring outdoor passions.
No matter your experience with Crown land camping, you should be able to appreciate the frustration and confusion some anglers and hunters are feeling right now — and have been feeling for weeks. As we watch videos of beaches, parks, and other outdoor spaces filling up near large urban centers that once represented COVID-19 case hot-spots, you can see why it is hard to understand the logic and rationale supporting the lingering Crown land camping closures.
The OFAH has been helping to keep people fishing and hunting during a pandemic
Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Crown lands are open, and fishing and hunting have not been specifically restricted during the pandemic is quite remarkable as so many other activities faced prolonged shutdowns. It is something that we can’t, and don’t, take for granted. It was no small feat. Fishing and hunting never quite seemed to teeter on the edge of making the long list of pandemic prohibitions, but don’t kid yourself, they were never outside of scrutiny for what should be shut down, especially at the height of lockdown deliberations last year, and again this year. During those uncertain times, the OFAH never stopped reminding the government that outdoor activities like fishing and hunting were possible within public health guidelines. Although we knew that not all anglers and hunters could make it work during lockdowns, we knew that many could, and it was a safe outlet that people desperately needed. Thankfully, the government agreed that fishing and hunting could be a pandemic solution rather than a problem, and the activities remained open.
The pandemic has left its mark on the fishing and hunting community
While fishing and hunting fared better than many other activities, it doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced restrictions. Many boat launches and public areas were closed, and restrictions on group sizes and travel made it impossible for some traditions to happen. Like most other sectors, fishing and hunting retail and industries have been impacted, and nowhere was our community affected more than in fishing and hunting tourism. The economic impact runs deep, and this has not only devastated small businesses but had profound impacts on small-town and regional economies, many of which heavily rely on the dollars generated by fishing and hunting tourism. Outside of the business of fishing and hunting, there are many anglers and hunters who have lost loved ones, lost their livelihoods, and suffered in countless other ways. Like everything else, the pandemic has left its mark on the fishing and hunting community.
Why fight for Crown land camping right now?
When you consider the hardship experienced throughout this pandemic, it may seem trivial to some to worry about Crown land camping or even fishing and hunting for that matter. I understand and respect the sentiment. Making a case for reopening Crown land camping is not about getting ‘our activity’ opened above others or reopened in contradiction to public health. We are simply asking for careful consideration of the realities of Crown land camping and how the benefits and drawbacks should fit into Ontario’s reopening framework. Whether it is being lumped in with provincial parks or just not well understood by public health officials and decision-makers, appropriate consideration doesn’t appear to have happened.
First off, I think it is important to state upfront that we wouldn’t advocate for anything that would put public health at risk. As an organization, we’ve been relying on the advice and guidelines of public health officials and using that information to help inform anglers and hunters about what they can do to remain safe while fishing and hunting. At this point though, it doesn’t take a public health official to spot the severe discrepancies in risk between crowded Toronto beaches and backcountry Crown land camping.
Also, we know that the outdoors is what many of us need right now to keep us level during these challenging times. If you fish and hunt or enjoy Crown land camping, you already know how important it is to you. If you don’t, then I would need a whole other article to unpack the layers of good it can do for us as individuals and for society as a whole. The benefits of outdoor activities are not debatable and are finally starting to receive broader social acceptance during the pandemic. It’s about time.
Being allowed isn’t enough, it needs to be accessible
Should we be thankful that fishing and hunting are still allowed? Yes. Should we be thankful that Crown lands remain open? Yes. So why is it so important to us to have Crown land camping too. It is because Crown land camping is simply a part of the package for many anglers and hunters, especially in northern Ontario. It isn’t a ‘nice to have’. It is a ‘need to have’ that makes many fishing and hunting opportunities possible. Day-use simply doesn’t work when it comes to accessing some of the best fishing and hunting that Ontario has to offer.
There is a huge difference between being allowed to fish and hunt, and actually being able to fish and hunt. In a simple example, take a southern Ontario lake that is surrounded by private lands. You are legally permitted to fish that lake, but if you cannot find a way to access it, then you can’t actually go fishing. This is why we have fought so hard for public boat launches and Crown land camping throughout the pandemic. It’s not enough to have the potential for fishing, you need to be able to actually do it.
Backcountry camping checks all the public health guideline boxes
I’ve also heard the argument that the number of lakes on Crown land means that you have options, so you don’t need to fish a lake that is hard to get to. You can just go to a closer one, go fishing during the day, and go home at night. This seems counter to what the government is trying to prevent in the first place. In many cases, the most accessible Crown lands are likely to have more people. Shouldn’t we encourage people to spread out? Not to mention that fishing and hunting quality likely isn’t as good as getting off the beaten path.
Backcountry camping checks all the boxes for public health guidelines. Where most anglers and hunters prefer to go, there are no welcome centres, comfort stations, crowds, or even cell reception. There are more fish and wildlife than there are people. Social distancing and all other public health guidelines are just a part of the deal when it comes to most Crown land camping, pandemic or no pandemic.
What are the perceived issues with Crown land camping?
As I mentioned above, some Crown land hot spots can draw relatively large crowds depending on accessibility and proximity to populated areas. Crowding could happen with any activity or at any place, and that is why general rules limiting group size gatherings and household mixing are a part of the underlying general public health guidelines. Like everything else, enforcement can be an issue. But we know that not every single activity has full enforcement scrutiny even outside of a pandemic. You establish rules through laws and regulations, you educate the public on those rules, and you have an enforcement presence that gives people the impression that they have a reasonable chance of being caught if they do something wrong. Blanket prohibitions tend to focus on preventing bad actions of the few, but usually end up just costing the people who would have followed the general public health guidelines anyways.
If I can live with my family, then why can’t I camp with them?
It is completely reasonable to ask the following: if I can live with my family, then why can’t I camp with my family on Crown lands well away from other people?
If the activities themselves, within broader public health guidelines, aren’t a risk to public health, then we should be able to open them up. Crown land camping can be easily done within the guidelines. As we’ve reopened many outdoor activities, it seems illogical to think that Crown land camping as an activity could be considered anything other than a way to help us crawl out of the pandemic darkness, reorient our personal compasses in the outdoors, and rediscover why we choose to live in this great province.