The South Okanagan Grasslands at Chopaka. It is speculated an announcement on the matter of the South Okanagan National Park is to take place at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre on Oct. 27.                                Photo courtesy of Graham Osborne

The South Okanagan Grasslands at Chopaka. It is speculated an announcement on the matter of the South Okanagan National Park is to take place at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre on Oct. 27. Photo courtesy of Graham Osborne

‘Stars have aligned’ for national park proponents

There is no official word yet, but all indications are that the wheels are once again in motion in the direction of a national park in the Okanagan Similkameen.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman were scheduled to make an announcement on the matter at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos at 10 a.m. Friday.

“I have a good feeling about tomorrow, you know it’s all speculation on my part, but I think it’s going to be a really good thing, I think it’s going to announce that the negotiations will begin,” said Doreen Olson, a member of the South Okanagan Similkameen National Park Network. “I’ve been on this campaign for 15 years and this is better than getting a new puppy. I’m very excited about the news and I know we’re going to try to work together with those people who are not quite as positive about the announcement as we are.

“The stars have aligned. They’ve got a government in Victoria that is positive about parks and protected areas. They’ve got the First Nations that are anxious to work together and they have Parks Canada and the Government of Canada, who want this to go through.”

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The idea of a national park has divided many people throughout the region and in some cases pitted neighbour against neighbour in the rural communities.

“There are certain rules that can’t be changed but I think we’re all going to work together,” said Olson.

“But we don’t have a park yet, and we won’t have a park tomorrow, but this is promising. This has been worth waiting for.”

About five years ago Parks Canada abandoned its feasibility assessment and stepped away from plans to create the park after it lost the support of the B.C. Liberal government when then Environment Minister Terry Lake, said there was a “large contingent of people opposed to the initiative.”

A survey in 2010 showed of the 405 people polled, 63 per cent were in favour. At the time it was reported the ecosystem was home to 56 endangered or threatened species, one of the highest concentrations in the country.

“From my standpoint it is the endangered species that is most important and the connectivity of that protected land base,” said Olson about her support of the park.

Those who were against the concept also formed a coalition which included ranchers, outdoor enthusiasts and others.

One person concerned with news the park may be actively pursued again is general manager Dave Schwartzenberger of the HNZ Topflight helicopter training centre, longtime opponents.

The company currently has a 10-year permit to do it’s training in some of the designated park areas however that expires on May 1, 2018.

Related: South Okanagan land protection plan moving forward

“This is super short notice and we’re a little bit blindsided by the announcement tomorrow,” said Schwartzenberger on Thursday. “We got notice about a day and a half ago that the ministers for federal and provincial would like to meet with us today at 3:30 p.m. today (Thursday) at the parks office.

“It’s coincidental, we’re in the permit renewal process right now so this could change the landscape of that permit. We’ve been training our national forces basically now since 1951 in all these areas they’re trying to make parks. If we didn’t get the permit we’d be out of business. We’d be looking for substantial compensation from government for the loss of business.”

He added the business pumps “millions and millions and millions of dollars” a year into the local economy and accounts for over 60 per of paid aircraft movement at Penticton Regional Airport.

“We’re kind of the main reason this airport is viable and has been for the last 66 years,” said Schwartzenberger. “We really believe in what we do, we provide life-saving training to our Canada Forces and we have contracts with the German Army, German Air Force, the Danish Air Force, the Norwegian Air Force and there is a reason they come to Penticton. They have lots of mountains in Europe but they come here because of our expertise and our history and what we can provide them.”

The company says it has a strict policy regarding impact on wildlife and as part of its permit provides critical information to government agencies about numbers and location.

According to Schwartzenberger another of the company’s concern is a response to its questions to Parks Canada, including what the company’s status will be during the wildlife assessment to be done.

“We still have the same position we’ve had in the past decade and we still haven’t gotten these answers after all this time and the answers we get are just not good enough and the ‘trust us’ approach is just not acceptable, we need to see something in writing,” he said. “The ranchers and the coalition group are really upset about this sneaky approach. They’ve (government) been working diligently in the background and all of a sudden they want to come and talk to you the day before the announcement.”

Both he and Olson also expect there will be word that the park’s size will be closer to the original figure of 654 square kilometres, which had been scaled back to 284 sq. km in 2006.

The park concept began in 2002 when current Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie, Sen. Ross Fitzpatrick and others went to Ottawa to meet with the Prime Minister’s staff after which the feasibility study began.