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OPINION: MP Cannings speaks about South Okanagan national park reserve in House of Commons
The following is an excerpt from a speech by MP Richard Cannings, South Okanagan-West Kootenay, in the House of Commons on Feb. 21.
In the mid-1900s, Parks Canada began a program to represent the full ecological diversity of this huge country in the national parks system, adding parks to Atlantic Canada, and in the north.
As the decades went on, it became more challenging to find representative areas in the south that could function as parks.
However, there are still eco-regions of Canada that are unrepresented.
In 1979, almost 40 years ago, one of my first real jobs after graduating from university was a contract with Parks Canada to report on opportunities for the creation of a national park in the dry interior of British Columbia, one of the only major eco-regions south of 60 with no representation in our national parks system.
I found large areas on the interior plateau that were relatively intact but lacked many of the characteristics that made the dry interior unique in Canada, particularly desert grasslands and ponderosa pine forests.
These grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada.
They were best represented in the south Okanagan Valley. However, opportunities for a large wilderness park there were limited.
Most of the low-elevation habitats were highly altered, and most of the grasslands converted to orchards and vineyards. The land base is a complex mosaic of provincial, federal, first nations, and private ownership.
For various reasons, nothing was accomplished to create a national park in the dry interior of B.C. for about 25 years.
Then, in 2002, an initiative began to bring together various groups in the South Okanagan to get a national park established there. Federal, provincial, and municipal leaders, First Nations, and environmental groups lobbied B.C. and the Canadian government and were successful in starting a feasibility study to look at the idea.
While there is general local support for the park proposal, the situation is complex and there are many issues to consider.
First Nations were in favour of the idea in principle, but wanted a real role in the development of the park and a direct role in the management of it, as is done in Gwaii Haanas and many northern national parks.
First Nations initially objected to sacred areas included in initial Parks Canada maps of the park proposal. These areas are now excluded and First Nations are again supportive.
Environmentalists were disappointed that some important areas were dropped from the Parks Canada proposal.
Hunters were concerned about the loss of hunting opportunities.
A large helicopter school was concerned, and still is, about assurances that its operations would not be affected by a new park.
Ranchers, the group most directly affected in terms of their livelihoods, were deeply concerned that a new national park would put an end to their operations. In B.C., most ranchers lease large areas of Crown land range in the summer and without access to that land base, they would be out of business very quickly.
It was a complicated situation, and it is perhaps not surprising that the process floundered for several years before the feasibility study was released with a positive answer in 2011.
First Nations released their own study, again agreeing in principle to move forward with planning in 2013.
Parks Canada spent some time working on a new policy to deal with the concerns of ranchers. It eventually decided that for this park, grazing could be allowed exactly as it was now managed under the B.C. Forest and Range Practices Act.
Unfortunately, just before the talks could move on to the next stage, the B.C. government pulled out of the process.
Again the initiative languished until the province recently announced it was willing to come back to the table and talk about a national park.
I was very happy to hear that decision, and I hope to see the process move forward once again.
The national park in the Okanagan would not be like the big wilderness parks across our country, but it is needed to protect the rare and diverse ecosystems in southern British Columba. It would provide a big boost to the local economy.
If other national parks in B.C. are anything to go by, it would create hundreds of direct and indirect jobs, all while protecting the local environment. It would also bring federal funding for the acquisition and management of the park.
Yes, it will take time and continued dialogue to create, but we should not give up on it simply because of those difficulties.
Special to the Times