Conservationists are optimistic that fresh support from First Nations will push the B.C. government to change it stance against a South Okanagan-Similkameen national park, but opponents hope the province sticks to its guns.
The proposal for a national park in the region went dark in late 2011 when the B.C. government announced it had withdrawn from the planning process due to a lack of public support. But a First Nations feasibility study released this week came down in favour of the park and has since rekindled supporters’ hopes.
“It just feels like there’s a lot of new momentum here and a good possibility of moving forward,” said Peter Wood, terrestrial campaigns manager for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
“We’ve all been sort of holding our breath a bit waiting for this, because without the First Nations support this wasn’t going to happen. So now that they… are fully on board, I think we’re ready to make another collective push.”
The society has long been a vocal supporter of the park, the study of which has progressed in fits and starts since 2003.
Parks Canada concluded its own feasibility study in 2011 and recommended the province adopt at a conceptual level the boundaries for a 284-square-kilometre park, but the federal agency shut down its work when the B.C. government walked away from the process.
The newest study, conducted to address concerns of four local First Nations, recommended they proceed to negotiations with Parks Canada, which paid $200,000 each to the Osoyoos Indian Band and Lower Similkameen Indian Band to complete the analysis.
Parks Canada maintains, however, that it will not proceed without support from the B.C. government.
And Environment Minister Terry Lake said in a statement earlier this week that he is interested in what the First Nations study found, but needs time to review it. He also noted that about a third of the proposed park area is already protected by other land-use designations.
Wood said those protected areas “are only there on paper,” and “very little is upheld in terms of monitoring.”
But Greg Norton, spokesperson for the Grasslands Park Review Coalition, said those land-use designation were based on public consultation and do a good job of balancing public and private interests, a point he thinks is lost on Parks Canada.
“We don’t feel like Parks Canada has ever yet embraced the reality of the impact of this park,” Norton said on behalf of the coalition, which he described as a loose, diverse group of concerned citizens.
Norton added that the newest study doesn’t address realities on the ground.
“If First Nations figure they want to look more at it, that’s their business. They’re entitled to an opinion,” he said. “However, the main issues remain as they have for 10 years.”
He said those issues concern an increased risk of wildfire, negative impacts on ranchers and farmers, and unwanted lifestyle changes that opponents fear the park will bring.
Dick Cannings, the B.C NDP’s candidate in the Penticton riding, said if his party is elected in May, it will at least continue exploring the national park concept.
“We would just get the process started again (and) indicate to Parks Canada that we would like to open up that dialogue so everybody can start talking again and see where it leads us,” said Cannings. “It’ll still be a ways to go, but we want to see where that goes instead of ending it prematurely.”