Over the past 10 years, several professional surveys have been undertaken in the South Okanagan regarding residents’ attitudes about various issues, including environmental issues. Invariably, concern for the environment ranks at or near the top of people’s concerns.
In the most recent survey (2008) conducted by a reputable and respected polling firm: 91 per cent of residents agreed that protecting natural ecosystems and wildlife is needed to maintain the quality of life in the South Okanagan and Similkameen; 75 per cent believe it is important to protect endangered species and their habitats in the long term, even if that means putting restrictions on economic development; and 87 per cent of residents feel regional and local governments should do more to protect the environment and conserve regional habitats and wildlife.
Given these results, I can’t help but notice the huge discrepancy between what local residents feel is important and what local politicians are actually doing.
A case in point is how the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen decides what is environmentally acceptable when a project is proposed for development. Now you might assume that the RDOS would have some pretty strict regulations relating to such projects and that they would employ an environmentally trained person who could actually look at the various proposals, assess whether they meet the regulations and make recommendations as to what should happen. Your assumption would be wrong.
The RDOS uses what is best called the “professional expertise” model to ensure that the proper approach is taken when projects are proposed in sensitive areas. This means it is basically up to the developer or landowner to hire a QEP (qualified environmental professional) who then undertakes an environmental assessment and writes a report saying what can and cannot be done. If life were perfect, this probably would work; but life isn’t perfect. If the developer/landowner doesn’t like what the QEP recommends in his report, he can hire another QEP and hope he gets a more favourable report (and he can simply burn the report he didn’t like). Unfortunately, since the RDOS did away with their environmental planner they have virtually no internal capacity to oversee quality assurance, compliance and enforcement. The province is doing no better with very little capacity to monitor the QEP reports or the work on the ground. As things stand right now, even if the QEP tells the developer that such and such must be done to protect the environment, the only person really checking up on whether that happens is the QEP himself, who is being paid by the developer. Anybody notice a slight conflict of interest here? The RDOS does have the authority to establish conditions and securities, but without the capacity to manage and monitor what is being undertaken, this seems pretty meaningless.
Earlier this year, a piece of former CPR/KVR land in Kaleden that was used as the KVR trail and recently purchased by a local resident was totally decimated — all of the trees and shrubs were cut down — right in the middle of bird breeding season; but nothing was done about this because a QEP had written a report saying that this was OK to do.
Would having a QEP on staff at the RDOS solve every environmental issue in the valley — not by a long shot, but I think it would be a very good start. And why don’t we have a QEP on staff? I’m just not sure. Given the number of property parcels in the regional district (about 48,000 including the cities), sharing the cost of a staff member across the entire district would seem to be a very small amount in taxes; perhaps $4 or $5 per parcel per year. Hardly a big burden when the residents say they want better environmental protection.
Once again, it just seems as though there is a huge disconnect between what residents want and what the local politicians are delivering.
Bob Handfield is vice-president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the club.