Posted on 23 May 2012 by Keith Lacey
Supporters of the proposed national park for the South Okanagan-Simikameen are hopeful the provincial government will change its mind and resume talks between Parks Canada and the provincial government following last week’s release of a feasibility study which clearly supports the concept of a park in this area.
However, naysayers who have never supported the concept of a national park for the South Okanagan, are adamant the province has made a final decision and they don’t think the results of the feasibility study will make a lick of difference in the long run.
The 26-page report became a hot topic of discussion over the past five months as Minister of Environment Terry Lake announced in January the province was withdrawing support for the national park following almost nine years of study and negotiations between Parks Canada and senior levels of government.
Lake would not discuss the contents of the feasibility study when he announced the province’s withdrawal of support in January, but stated there wasn’t sufficient public support for the park, which appears contrary to many of the findings in the document.
The province released the feasibility study, officially called the Proposed National Park Reserve for the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen, early last week following a successful Freedom of Information and Protection of Public Privacy Act (FOIP) application by a media outlet in British Columbia.
The document, which was published in the spring of 2010, clearly supports the concept and support for a national park.
The four main recommendations from the report state:
• A national park reserve is feasible.
• The proposed park boundary contained herein be approved at a conceptual level.
• The governments of Canada and British Columbia sign a Memorandum of Understanding respecting the establishment of a national park reserve in the South Okanagan.
• Parks Canada should continue to work with the Okanagan Nation Alliance and affected First Nation bands to achieve shared understandings regarding the protection and future management of the park proposed area.
In February, the Okanagan Nation, made up of the four largest First Nation bands in the Okanagan Valley, announced its disdain for the province’s decision to withdraw support, while announcing it would be conducting its own feasibility study into the national park issue. Results of that study are expected sometime this fall.
Town of Osoyoos Mayor Stu Wells said the feasibility study reinforces his personal belief that the majority of citizens in the affected area where park boundaries would be located are strongly in favour.
“I am amazed at the poor arithmetic Minister Lake continues to use saying there’s insufficient support for the park,” said Wells. “It’s clear in the report that every study has shown more than a two-to-one ratio of support.
“There’s an obvious desire for this process of negotiations to resume, but I honestly don’t know if the province is interested in that.”
Wells said the biggest reason he supports a national park is because the size of the original boundaries have been reduced by more than 50 per cent, from a 2006 draft proposal of 650 square kilometres to the revised concept of 284 square kilometres.
“A lot of people were originally against the park because of its vastness and sheer amount of land,” he said. “But it’s actually quite small now and that’s made a world of difference in my opinion of supporting this park.”
Wells said he “has no doubt” the national park issue will be a major election issue in communities across the South Okanagan during the next campaign, which many people believe will take place next spring.
Boundary-Similkameen MLA John Slater has been vocal about his support of Lake’s decision to withdraw support for the national park and Wells believes Slater will be forced to answer many questions about that decision when an election is called.
Greg Norton, spokesperson for the Grassland Park Review Coalition, has been the most outspoken critic of the national park proposal and said the feasibility study “hasn’t changed my mind one iota.”
Parks Canada is a federal government department and the agenda to create this park has been politically driven with very little input or concern for regular citizens whose lives would be disrupted forever should a park be allowed, said Norton.
“The people from Parks Canada got someone who supports their cause to write nice things about a national park … that’s the way I see it,” said Norton, a successful rancher and orchardist from Oliver. “You have to look at the source … I’ve read most of the report and it didn’t make any impression on me whatsoever to be honest.”
While Parks Canada representatives held one or two public meetings with ranchers, hunters and land owners who would be affected by the park eight or nine years ago, they haven’t been involved in any discussions or negotiations since, said Norton.
“As a coalition, there was some initial contact … and even though we insisted on being part of the process, we were never contacted or listened to again,” said Norton. “Our concerns were never considered by Parks Canada.”
Norton remains confident the current Liberal government or Lake won’t be changing their mind, despite the release of the feasibility study.
“Minister Lake has made it very clear there remains insufficient public support for this park and he won’t be changing his mind and I continue to applaud him for it,” he said. “This entire process was driven by Parks Canada and those responsible for this report were simply following an agenda.
“I don’t think the report is fair or written objectively. I think this is a dead issue and should remain a dead issue and we should be moving on.”
The past nine years of negotiations about a national park have taken away from allowing all interested stakeholders to share their voice and concerns about the long-term use of this valuable piece of public land, he said.
“The nine years we’ve wasted on this national park would have been much better used developing an LRMP (land management resource plan) that everyone wants,” he said. “When Parks Canada first talked about a national park way back in 2000, the South Okanagan location now being fought about was at the top of their least desirable locations, then politics entered into the picture and all of a sudden the fight was on.
“It made no sense to me then and it still doesn’t. It’s time to get on with it and come up with a land management plan that makes the most sense for the mountain and everyone in this area.”
Doug Brown, president of the Oliver Osoyoos Naturalist Club, said he’s not surprised the feasibility study so strongly supports the idea of a national park for this area.However, he is not optimistic the government will do anything about it.
“I honestly don’t think there will be any action on this matter until the next election and we have a new government in power,” he said.
Every public survey and questionnaire conducted over the past decade has shown overwhelming public support for a national park and the study simply confirms those numbers, he said.
“If they did another poll tomorrow, the results would be the same,” he said. “Most people want this park and now there are a lot more people undecided, but the government doesn’t appear willing to do anything about it.”
The fact it took a FOIP request to have the government release the study speaks volumes about the power of politics in this issue, he said.
The feasibility study is now available on the Town of Osoyoos website at www.osoyoos.ca