Park or no park?
After nearly nine years, both sides in the heated debate over the creation of a national park in the South Okanagan Similkameen are upset that question has still not been answered.
“We are frustrated as much as the coalition (Grassland Park Review Coalition) is frustrated and I can certainly understand how ranchers feel about not knowing about where the process is going and what they should be doing,” said Doreen Olson of the South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Network which is lobbying for the idea. “I would sure like to see this come to a conclusion, but I guess when you’re this close to the issue it seems like a long drawn out thing, and it is.”
Last week about 100 people opposed to the park took part in an impromptu rally at the century-old Barrington Ranch in Keremeos. The purpose was to show solidarity for the “no” side and express their frustration with the length and uncertainty of the process.
“After all this time and the millions of dollars that have been spent there are still a number of fundamental questions that Parks Canada has not answered,” said Greg Norton, rally organizer and co-founder of the Grassland Park Review Coalition. “The real crime in this process is the alienation and the fracturing this wedge has caused.
“We all lose because it puts neighbour against neighbour and that’s really sad. Right now there is a dark cloud looming over our community.”
Specifically the questions include what the real economic impact will be on ranching, what increased deer and bear numbers will do to horticulture and forage crops and the possible danger of wildfires.
He said attempts to arrange a meeting with the government department were unsuccessful, even with the assistance of area MP Alex Atamanenko.
“We’re getting to the point here where we need some political leadership,” said Norton. “In other words, they (politicians) have to start saying publicly what they’re saying privately to us.”
Olson agreed: “We’d all like to hear what the politicians are saying.”
She believes the delay, in part, is a result of the current negotiations between Parks Canada and the First Nations and its talks with the B.C. government.
“It’s understandable with the problems the provincial government has right now they don’t need another big thing on their plate,” she said. “I think they’ve done exactly what they’ve done with that (a decision about the new prison location) and they’ve got the HST issue to deal with.”
Meanwhile Parks Canada’s Debbie Clarke would not put a time frame on when a decision could be expected. She did say, however, work is ongoing to address the issues from both sides.
That includes satisfying the concerns of First Nations stakeholders, most of which have been adamantly opposed to the park.
“Over the last year, collaborative work with the southern bands of the Okanagan Nation has built shared understandings and common interest in protecting the land for future generations,” she said in a prepared statement. “Together we are envisioning potential for mutual benefit in including a national park reserve, among other tools and approaches, to protect nature for, not from, residents and all Canadians.”
She added another priority has been working towards an innovative grazing model that would provide clarity and certainty for ranching families and celebrate the regional ranching heritage.
A decision about the park will only be made after talks with all levels of government and First Nations have been satisfactorily completed Clarke said.
She pointed out officials of Canadian Helicopters, which has operated its international mountain-flight instruction courses in the region since 1947, were notified its current activities could continue even if a park is established.
According to Clarke, the company received a similar assurance following its decision to go ahead with the multi-million-dollar major expansion currently underway at the Penticton Regional Airport.
However, those verbal promises have not swayed Canadian’s business development manager Jan Rustad’s opposition to a national park.
“All the Debbies can talk till their blue in the face but they can’t make those kind of promises because they are not the operational group that will run this when the proper park comes into existence,” he said. “When that (park) happens the shoe will be on the other foot because the (Canada National) Parks Act, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t been amended — there’s no motorized vehicles, there’s no aircraft allowed in a national park.
“There’s nothing from them (Parks Canada) in writing saying you will have all the use that you have now. These people can’t do that.”
He added without some tangible recognition of the assurance the company could be banned at any time from working in the park, which would put an end to business locally for Canadian.
In addition to goods and services, including airport fees, the company utilizes an estimated 3,000-4,000-man nights of accommodation a year at area hotels.
Proponents of the park include a number of individuals and conservation groups who say the protection is needed because of its unique environment which is home to a number of endangered species. They also say it will generate millions of dollars in tourism revenue.