Study rekindles debate over national park

NDP critic slams B.C. Liberals for handling of a feasibility study on a South Okanagan-Similkameen national park

It was “disgraceful” for the provincial government to release a national park feasibility study only after it became the subject of multiple freedom-of-information requests, says the opposition environment critic.

“I’ve just been unimpressed by the way (the B.C. Liberals) have tried to end a process that they signed on to,” said Rob Fleming, the NDP MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake. “The way they’ve ended it is disgraceful.”

The feasibility study on a South Okanagan-Similkameen national park began in 2004 and was led by Parks Canada with provincial backing. The final report was submitted to the B.C. government in January 2011. It was finally released Tuesday after at least two FOI requests, including one from the Western News.

Ultimately, the report finds a 284-square-kilometre park is feasible and recommends the B.C government adopt the proposed boundaries at a conceptual level.

The study also includes the results of a Parks Canada survey from 2007 that showed 39 per cent of respondents supported the park, 19 per cent opposed it, and 43 per cent offered no opinion.

Environment Minister Terry Lake said 39 per cent support was simply not enough to drastically reshape land use in the region.

“We look for more support than 39 per cent,” he explained in a statement that did not address the mechanics of the study’s release.

“There are many ways to protect conservation values through provincial systems,” Lake continued, “and we’re certainly willing to look at all those opportunities in the future.”

John Slater, the Liberal MLA for Boundary Similkameen and a park opponent, said it would have created too much uncertainty for those who play and work in the area, particularly farmers and ranchers.

“It’s too risky,” Slater said.

As for the government’s delay in releasing the feasibility study, Slater said he deferred to the Environment Ministry: “Terry Lake’s the minister and he felt that their staff should be dealing with it, and justifiably so.”

The feasibility study does outline plans to mitigate local concerns, such as those raised by 12 ranchers who graze cattle within the proposed park boundaries. It said Parks Canada would be willing to buy some of those properties, and also adopt an “adaptive management framework that supports continued livestock grazing.”

Other mitigation efforts deal with concerns from hunters and helicopter companies whose activities could also be curtailed. The biggest concession noted is the 57 per cent reduction in the proposed park size from its original 654 square kilometres.

Parks Canada has already set a precedent with respect to grandfathering user groups affected by new parks, said Chloe O’Laughlin of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. She cited examples like ski hills in Banff and Jasper, and a mine in a park in the Northwest Territories.

O’Loughlin agreed with the NDP’s Fleming on both the need for further public discussion of the park and for the province to reopen the file after seven years and likely millions of dollars were spent on the feasibility assessment.

“All the local people who participated in that research were told that it would be open and transparent and their opinions would count,” she said, “and now that the report is finished, I think the natural thing would be for the province to honour that process.”

Local First Nations are still completing their own feasibility study of the park idea, although Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie was uncertain when it will be done.

Parks Canada declined an interview request.


Park facts

The proposed national park was scaled back from a 654-square-kilometre version pitched in 2006 to the 284-square-kilometre edition examined in the feasibility study. The proposed park was in two pieces:

Northern Component

– 10 sq. km

– Centred on existing conservation areas around Vaseux Lake

– Potential interpretive theme: Snakes and Lakes

Southern Component

– 274 sq. km

– Finger-shaped and running from roughly the same latitude as Keremeos in the north to the Canada-U.S. border in the south, between Keremeos in the west and Oliver and Osoyoos in the east

– Includes 93 sq. km in the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected Area, 83 sq. km of multi-use Crown land, and 98 sq. km of private land.

– Would consolidate five parcels of protected areas and span five distinct ecosystems

– Potential interpretive theme: From the Desert to the Stars


Source: Parks Canada feasibility assessment