The Devil’s in the Details: Why the Parks Act is now at risk

Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about the Park Amendment Act that was passed into law by the B.C. government at the end of March without any public consultation. CPAWS-BC and others have drawn attention to how the amendments have introduced several weaknesses into the Act that place our parks at risk. We have three main concerns:

1.The type of research that can receive permits

One of the major concerns that we’ve brought forward relates to the research activities for which a park use permit can be issued. Previously under the Park Act, research permits could only be issued for activities that were consistent with the purpose for which the park was created. This was an important safeguard put in place to protect and maintain the integrity of the ecosystems and wildlife within the borders of our parks. Now, that safeguard has been removed.

Under the amended Park Act, what has changed is a clause in the Act that determines the type of research that can be done. A tiny little word “or” in a list of conditions has changed it so that a research permit can now be issued, so long as:

(a) to do so is consistent with the purpose of the protected area,
(b) the research relates to the improvement of public health or safety,
(c) the research relates to an environmental assessment or a feasibility study, or
(d) the research will inform a decision of the Lieutenant Governor in Council or the Legislature in relation to the boundaries of the protected area.

In turn, "feasibility study" is defined to include the feasibility of a wide variety of projects, including roads, highways, pipelines, transmission lines.

This weakens protection for our parks because permits can now be issued for research activities that are either consistent with maintaining the values of a park OR inconsistent, if the research will inform a feasibility study, environmental assessment or boundary adjustment decision.

2. Flexibility of park boundaries

The province’s Boundary Adjustment Policy for parks has always been problematic, as it presents an open invitation for industry to consider projects that pass through parks and protected areas. The policy leaves the door open to any proponent – industry, government, or otherwise – to see park boundaries as flexible, rather than set in stone.

This flexibility is important if a boundary needs to be adjusted to better protect park ecosystems and wildlife, or if it’s a matter of public health and safety, but when it comes to adjusting boundaries to make room for industrial development, the policy hurts more than it helps. While the Policy itself has not changed, project proponents will now be able to undertake research that can be used to support boundary changes long before any consultation is required.

3. Removal of park land

It’s important to acknowledge that none of these changes allow for industrial activity within BC Parks, technically speaking. However, the revised Act now facilitates the removal of park land for the purpose of industrial development by removing the requirement for research to be consistent with the park’s purpose. In other words, industry now has a leg up in the process of requesting lands be taken out of a park for the purpose of industrial development which would otherwise not be allowed on those lands.

An all too real example of how permitting paves the way for industrial activity

Let me demonstrate all of this with an example. Last fall, four months before the Park Amendment Act was passed, the government issued park use permits to Kinder Morgan to access five provincial parks and protected areas. These permits allowed the company to conduct research in those parks that will be used to support its proposal to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from Edmonton to Vancouver.

This research will be used to inform decisions that could result in the removal of park land to accommodate the pipeline. Conducting research to support removing park land to expand a pipeline is in no conceivable way an activity consistent with the purpose of a park or protected area, and yet it is now legal for this to happen.

The questionable legality of issuing those permits to Kinder Morgan (before the Park Amendment Act made it legal) notwithstanding, this represents the type of “research” that our government wants to allow in our parks. It’s unclear why the Ministry of Environment – whose job it is to protect the less than 15% of B.C.’s lands that are in parks or protected areas – would weaken their own laws to such a great extent.

Last week, CPAWS-BC and eight other organizations presented a petition to the provincial government, calling on them to repeal the amendments. Signed by over 166,000 people, the petition represents an unprecedented level of public support for B.C.’s parks and demonstrates that there is a real appetite to keep industry away from our parks and protected areas.

Presenting the names of over 166,000 people asking the B.C. government to repeal the Park Amendment Act

This petition is just the first step down a long road of working to keep our parks protected. I can’t emphasize enough just how important it is to keep the pressure on the government to repeal these amendments and come back with protected area legislation that does what it’s supposed to do – conserve B.C.’s incredible landscapes and the diversity of wildlife that call these places home.