Op-ed in Van. Sun: Delays costly for Okanagan park

  • Published on May 25 2011 |
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Delayed approval for proposed park could be costly

CPAWS op-ed published in Vancouver Sun, May 25, 2011

British Columbia could have a new national park at any time -- and it will be a beauty. Set in the rolling hillsides of the South Okanagan-Similkameen, this proposed park is just a four-hour drive from Vancouver. Great adventures await everyone. Best of all, this park would forever save a slice of an incredibly endangered landscape.

Unfortunately, this wonderful contribution to Canada’s parks system has yet to materialize.

So what’s the problem? That is what we’d like to know. Our organization, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, works largely behind the scenes; we’ve helped create many parks in Canada. We know the core feasibility research for this Okanagan-area park was completed long ago. Thus, it’s extremely frustrating that the public “two-year” feasibility study is now crawling into its seventh year.

Everyone is waiting for one small formality: Approval by the B.C. government. Once that happens, Parks Canada can buy the core private grasslands desirable for this park. The location is strategic, as several provincial parks adjoin this core area. Combined, the protected parkland will help 56 species at risk and save a swath of quickly disappearing landscape.

The wait is nerve-wracking. Around the proposed park area, lands continue to be converted to vineyards, suburbs, and other developments. Without movement by our B.C. government, these ecologically-rich lands and expansive ranches will be sold to private interests. Opportunities to buy these lands for conservation will be lost.

The delay is costly in other ways. Without protected habitat, struggling species will become more at risk. It’s very expensive to try to “save” a species too late in the game and B.C. taxpayers will be on the hook. Also, every year that the feasibility study drags on, taxpayers pay for the never-ending bureaucratic process. Ranchers and other business people must also grapple with the uncertainty; they can’t make long-term plans or capital investments.

So we have a costly and harmful delay. The curious part of this story is that the delay seems institutionalized; no one seems sure of the direct cause of the hold-up. The science is solid. This Okanagan region, with its dry climate and unique nature, is one of the four most endangered landscapes in Canada. This park is a national priority for Parks Canada.

Is this delay caused by nervous politicians? Possibly, but it could just be generalized anxiety. There is great support by local communities, like Osoyoos, Oliver, Penticton and Keremeos. Recent polling shows that 63 percent of local residents want this park to go ahead. In our experience, that is terrific local support. Still, there is a vocal minority – a select group of people within the ATV and hunting communities – who don’t want this park created, as they want to recreate at random throughout the region.

Their desires for random roaming are simply not feasible. This is a dry, desert-like region. Without much water, this landscape takes many years to regenerate after it’s chewed up by off-road tires.

At the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, we work with all special interest groups to create parks that benefit the many and the few. Our supporters include hunters and ATV riders.

The current park proposal is extremely generous. Hunting will be phased out over decades. Off-road ATV riding and mud bogging in protected areas is illegal now and will still be illegal in the future. Any loss of “random recreation” is utterly negligible.

We hope our B.C. government will listen to the strong majority of local residents and businesses – especially the hotels, motels, restaurants, vintners, real estate agents and tourism operators – who support this national park proposal. This park is a chance to properly conserve their disappearing landscape while enjoying the big economic boost that national parks bring to local communities. The resources and staff of the national park would also enhance local fire and water management to combat the area’s tinder dry summer vegetation and receding lakes.

Why a “national” park? National parks have decent funding, scientific monitoring, good interpretive centres, strategic walkways and careful attention to endangered species. In contrast, B.C.’s provincial parks are woefully underfunded, with scant monitoring and few full-time employees.

Premier Christy Clark wants to put “families first” in our province. This park will be a great place for families to come together and explore a very different landscape from our lush coastal rainforests. The South Okanagan-Similkameen has rolling hills and dry grasslands with desert-like shrubs and ponderosa pine trees.

We hope Premier Clark considers its endangered status and imagines families yet to come – those future generations who will benefit the most from this national park.

We’re at a genuine crossroads in this region.

We must protect this landscape now with the federal resources offered by a national park, or lose it forever. Parks Canada is poised to spend millions in B.C. creating and maintaining this park. Why would we turn down that offer of green investment?

On Sunday, the United Nations marked its Day of Biological Diversity. What an appropriate time of year to protect one of the most biodiverse places in Canada. Along with Premier Clark, we hope Prime Minister Stephen Harper will rise to the occasion and protect this precious natural world for the people of British Columbia.

Please let this park be born; don’t let it “wait to death”.

Chloe O’Loughlin

Executive Director

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, B.C. chapter