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Ranching trumps tourism, says MLA
As pressure increases to resume talks to create a national park reserve in the South Okanagan, the provincial government, including MLA Linda Larson, is digging in its heels.
Municipal, tourism, business and environmental organizations have launched a letter-writing campaign urging B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak to reopen talks with the federal government aimed at establishing the park reserve.
Larson, however, said the time is not right to resume federal-provincial talks. She also argues that cattle ranching takes precedence over tourism.
The provincial Liberals shut down talks over a proposed national park for the South Okanagan in January of 2012, stating there was insufficient public support. They have refused to resume discussions about the proposal over the past two years.
“During the election campaign, I said that park or no park, I will not support anything that will affect anyone’s livelihood who currently lives and works in this area,” said Larson. “Not only their livelihood, but their lifestyle, so I stand by that. That’s not to say that the umbrella of a national park can’t also accommodate some of those issues, but I don’t know if it can accommodate them all.”
Among the uses Larson wants to see protected are livestock grazing, a helicopter school and hunting.
Larson says she stands by her previous comments to local municipal and business representatives that she would rather have one farmer than four tourists.
“I’m a firm believer in the B.C. beef industry,” said Larson. “I think the value of a ranch with a whole bunch of cattle is greater than that of four tourists.”
Stu Wells, mayor of Osoyoos, a town that depends on tourism dollars, said he was stunned when Larson made this comment to him and others.
“It took the wind out of my sails,” he said, struggling to choose his words carefully.
“It was a political issue in the last election and it is not going to go away,” Wells said. “The majority of people are in favour of it. They [the province] are going to have to open the discussion. They can’t just shut the door.”
Wells suggested the province should put the question to the people with a referendum in the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS) during next year’s municipal elections.
“Find out what the people want,” he said. “I know what the people want. (The provincial government is) not listening. They’re listening to a vocal minority.”
In recent weeks, federal MP Alex Atamanenko and the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA) were among those writing letters to Polak urging that talks on a national park should resume.
“I have closely followed this file for more than seven years and have come to the conclusion that a national park in the South Okanagan is the best way to preserve this unique wilderness area and provide significant benefits to this region and the communities,” Atamanenko wrote.
The federal MP said he’s discussed the issue with Larson and shares her concern for protect grazing rights.
He believes, however, that grazing rights, access for the HNZ helicopter school out of Penticton and rights of First Nations can be protected within the park framework.
In a letter to Polak, TOTA chair Michael Ballingall noted his organization unanimously approved a resolution urging the province to re-establish discussions with the federal government and the Okanagan Nation Alliance.
“The South Okanagan-Similkameen national park reserve is an important part of our 10-year regional tourism strategy,” Ballingall wrote. “The park is a pivotal component of our plan to build a tourism corridor from the Wells Gray International Geo Park in the north to the national park in the south.”
Other organizations that have written the minister and expressed support for reopening talks include the South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce, the Okanagan Basin Water Board and regional and local governments.
Larson said she’s been copied on these letters and she has had talks with officials in her government.
“A lot of the letters you’ll have noticed do not come from the people who live here,” said Larson. “And as far as I’m concerned, they really don’t have a say. It’s the people who live here and work here and make their home here that ultimately are affected directly by whatever happens. The city of Vernon, I mean come on. You maybe come down and drink wine at the wineries, but you don’t live and work here.”
It’s very noble if they’re advocating from a conservation perspective, but “if they’re doing it to try and make a tourism dollar, it’s not so noble,” she said. “I believe in tourism and I think it will continue to grow with or without a park.”
The province needs to come up with a list of all the allowable uses for the land and people who live there before talks with the federal government should resume, said Larson..
She would support a moratorium on development and subdivision of undeveloped land in the area in question, but she said there might be other “umbrellas” to protect the land besides a national park.