A HNZ Topflight (formerly Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training) helicopter flies over a section of the Similkameen Valley near Keremeos. The Penticton company regularly uses the region for training purposes.

National park plan resurfaces

Budget committee recommends province re-engage with federal government on the idea for Okanagan-Similkameen

The concept of a national park in the Similkameen has surfaced once again, thanks to a recommendation in a provincial finance committee report.

The Report on the 2015 Budget Consultations recommends that the province work with the federal government and local stakeholders to assess the feasibility of and support for the establishment of a new national park in the South Okanagan-Similkameen.

“That was worded very carefully because of the input we got,” said Penticton MLA Dan Ashton, who chairs the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services, which authored the report. As Penticton mayor and chair of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, he was a supporter of the park.

“My support is conditional and always has been,” said Ashton. His conditions include maintaining the rights of ranchers, farmers, those with mineral rights in the area and other current users.

That includes HNZ Topflight (formerly Canadian Helicopters), which uses the area for training flights.

“Their operations can not be affected and that also goes for the hunting and fishing,” said Ashton. “It’s not like a greenfield park where there is nothing involved. There is a lot of activity in this area. This is a national park that is being dropped into a populated area.”

The report notes the national park concept is supported by the federal government but requires provincial support to proceed. But park supporters did not give up when provincial support was withdrawn in 2011, with then- environment minister Terry Lake saying the province was not convinced there was enough local support.

Several groups, including the South Okanagan Similkameen National Park Network, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – BC Chapter, and the Greater Westside Board of Trade and South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce, voiced support for the project in their submissions to the committee.

According to the budget report, the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen region has been described as one of the most important ecosystems in the world and home to nearly 60 federally listed endangered species. The potential economic benefits of the proposed park were cited as including new jobs, tourism, First Nations opportunities, and economic diversification.

“I know it has been quietly simmering,” said Ashton. “I know it is a hot issue.”

Mark Pendergraft, chair of the RDOS and representative for the Osoyoos rural area, said the board had previously passed a motion asking the province to reengage in negotiations about a national park and see whether outstanding issues could be resolved.

“I don’t necessarily say they were in favour of a national park, it was just they wanted the discussions to continue,” said Pendergraft, noting that new directors will be sworn in on Dec. 11.

“I think it is probably an issue that we will have to address again as a new board and see where we want to go with it.”