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 area proposed for a national park for training purposes.

Fight continues for national park in South Okanagan-Similkameen

Environmental group urging local governments to the north to back bid, while a federal politicians has also rejoined the battle

Two years after the B.C. government shut down discussions on a national park in the region, an environmental group and a federal politician are pressing for talks to resume.

For the past several months, the South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Network has been lobbying local governments to pass motions calling on the provincial government to restart the process.

Network co-ordinator Doreen Olson said the provincial government withdrew from the process due ostensibly to a lack of public support for the park, so her group is trying to prove otherwise.

“We’re still continuing to inform people of what the situation is and hoping they can see the benefits,” she said.

Since September, the Central Okanagan and North Okanagan regional districts, plus the City of Vernon, have all adopted motions in favour of the park, while some local governments in the South Okanagan expressed support in previous years.

“All of them see the benefits of having the national park,” Olson said.

“It’s an economic benefit for us. It’s not just the park, it’s the spin-off from that as well.”

Southern Interior MP Alex Atamanenko has also rejoined the fight.

He sent a letter last week to B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak in which he urged her to re-engage in negotiations with the federal government and First Nations.

“I think it’s time to get on with it and get down to some serious discussions,” he said in an interview.

Atamanenko pointed out that feasibility studies prepared by both Parks Canada and the Okanagan Nation Alliance came down in favour of the park. He also suggested that concerns raised by groups like ranchers and a local helicopter company that use the proposed 284-square-kilometre park area could be addressed by negotiating with the federal government a guarantee of continued access for them.

“There’s got to be some flexibility there,” Atamanenko said.

Penticton MLA Dan Ashton agreed.

“I’ve been clear all the way along: I’m personally in support of a national park in the South Okanagan, but I have conditions,” he said, echoing a list of concerns also raised by Atamanenko that need to be addressed.

“If governments are going to take a look at a national park, they have to take a look at the rights of the people who will be affected by that,” Ashton added.

The MLA said the continued campaign to drum up support for the park can’t hurt its chances, although he was told last week by the environment minister that the B.C. government “is not considering a national park at this time.”

Environment Ministry spokesman Dave Crebo said in statement about 20 per cent of the South Okanagan is already covered by conservation designations and the government “is always open to working with groups to protect environmentally important areas through these other mechanisms.”

Atamanenko, however, is unsure how such designations will hold up in the face of development pressure.

“I don’t trust any provincial government of any political stripe — and I emphasize any political stripe — to preserve that area, because I think all we need is some heavy lobbying from the mining or logging industry or other groups and I think governments can bend,” he said.

“I think the best way to protect that area is to enshrine it in a national park.”