With a provincial election a year away, the BC New Democrats are not saying yet if they will support a national park in the South Okanagan/Similkameen.
This week, the party’s environment critic Rob Fleming accused the Liberals of shortsightedness by closing the door on the matter but stopped short of backing the plan.
“I think it was really regrettable and heavy handed the way that Terry Lake unilaterally pulled British Columbia away from the table, from discussions that were about a feasibility of a national park without telling anybody,” said Fleming. “The environment minister closed doors and avenues that could potentially help not only address economic development issues and drive a positive outcome that pleased all stakeholders but turned his back on a strategy to help endangered species survive in British Columbia.”
Previously Lake said the government was very much aware of the sensitive nature of the area but there were other ways of protecting it without going the route of a national park.
About his party’s overall position Fleming said, “I think we’re in favour of talking and seeing the feasibility work — I’m talking about the entire process — concluded because there has been an awful lot of time, money and expert opinion spent in the process.”
The minister first indicated the government would not support the park in December of last year. A month later a notice appeared on the Parks Canada website stating without provincial support the project would not go ahead and it was withdrawing from public engagement of stakeholders.
At the time, Lake felt there was not enough public support from those living in the region near the proposed boundaries to warrant further action. Both groups agreed if circumstances changed in the future the issue could be revisited but that now appears unlikely before the 2013 spring election. The only official work currently being done is a federally-funded, $200,000 feasibility study by First Nations bands including those who initially were against the park concept.
“These are First Nations leaders and band councils that have been working hard and who have a position that has changed over time, and also invested money in economic studies, they were left in the cold as well,” said the government critic. “I think it is very shabby treatment the way Terry Lake has acted.”
Repeated attempts to contact Chief Rob Edward of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band about the progress of the study underway were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile the environment critic’s comments came at a time when several reports have surfaced about the impending closure of the Parks Canada Penticton office.
There have been conflicting comments about whether the federal government should continue its work in the area or shut down entirely.
Park opponents say too much money has been spent already and those in support feel a change in heart by the Liberals or new government could open the doors again.
Parks Canada officials would not return phone calls about the office closure or possible time line involved if it were to take place.
“The possible closure of the Penticton office of Parks Canada and resulting job loss is unfortunate,” said Marji Basso, who will be representing the NDP in the provincial riding of Boundary Similkameen next election.
She agreed with Fleming about Lake’s decision being premature and the findings of an earlier feasibility study be made public something both sides have requested.
“I am encouraged by the aspect that the local First Nations are continuing to carry out their own feasibility study, and look forward to their findings in the fall,” she said. “This is very contentious and is definitely going to be an election issue. It’s quite bipolar in this area, there’s not many people who are in the middle, they are either for or against.”
Now with Parks Canada out of the loop in terms of public presentations, the Vancouver-based Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has stepped up to the plate.
The organization recently completed a series of five meetings throughout the region including Penticton. Three more sessions are scheduled for next month including two on April 3 in Princeton at 11 a.m. and Cawston Hall at 7 p.m. The third is in the Okanagan Falls Community Centre the following day at 7 p.m.
Penticton city council also received correspondence at this week’s meeting requesting its endorsement of the park plan. Director Mike Meheriuk of the Okanagan Similkameen Parks Society made the request indicating representatives from his group are scheduled to meet with Lake and tourism minister Pat Bell at the end of the month. The goal is to urge the ministers to restart talks.
Meheriuk suggested an email be sent to Bell outlining the economic and tourism benefits of the park to this region and included a list of those items from CPAWS as a guideline.
Council tabled the matter for further review.