British Columbia

Parks Canada walks away from national park plan

Parks Canada is stepping back from plans to create a controversial national park in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen, which has been hotly debated by environmentalists and hunters for almost a decade.
These sagebrush grasslands would have been part of the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen National Park. Parks Canada has said it is following the lead of the B.C. government and stepping away from its plans to establish the park in the Oliver-Osoyoos area. (CBC)

Parks Canada has abandoned its feasibility assessment, and is stepping away from plans to create a national park in the South Okanagan-Similkameen.

On its website, Parks Canada says it "respects the position of the Government of British Columbia regarding the creation of a national park reserve in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen Valley and recognizes that it cannot proceed without the support of the Government of British Columbia."

For Parks Canada to create a national park, it needs the support of federal, provincial and First Nations governments.

The controversial project was first pitched in 2003 and has been hotly debated ever since but in December, B.C. Minister of Environment Terry Lake announced the province would not support the proposed park.

"While the feasibility study determined a national park reserve was feasible, it also recognized there was a large contingent of people opposed to the initiative," said Lake in a letter to park proponents.

"The Province is not convinced there is enough local support to move forward with this proposal at this time."

'An opportunity that cannot be lost'

Chloe O'Loughlin, the director of terrestrial conservation for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society in B.C., said she's alarmed by the news.

The Pacific rattlesnake is one of 56 threatened and endangered species whose habitat would have been protected by the proposed national park. (CBC)

"This is a huge opportunity for the area, for the region, from a conservation perspective, from a business perspective, from a tourism perspective. It is an opportunity that cannot be lost," said O'Loughlin

"It is one of the most endangered areas in British Columbia."

The sagebrush desert ecosystem is home to 56 threatened or endangered species, including the Pacific rattlesnake, Flammulated owl and the Great Basin spadefoot. The region has the highest concentration of threatened and endangered species in Canada.

A public opinion poll commissioned by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in May 2010 showed 63 per cent of the 405 people surveyed in the South Okanagan-Similkameen supported Parks Canada's plan for a national park.

'No national park'

But the plan wasn't popular with hunters and recreational ATVers, who vocally protested the idea and erected signs across the region that read "No national park."

Signs reading protesting a proposed national park line the highway in the South Okanagan-Similkameen. (CBC)

"I think it's a very small group of individuals who are actually, seems to me, stopping the whole process. It's a very small group of very loud people who want to be able to hunt and in a national park you're not allowed to hunt," said O'Loughlin.

But Oliver orchardist Greg Norton says it's more than that.

He says the park would have taken ranch land away from producers and allowed deer populations to get out of control, affect orchardists with property near the park. 

"We've been around for over a hundred years in this valley, and have used the mountain as our place of peace, our place of recreation, our place of food. And to have it taken away, severely restricted, is something that people in the area were uncomfortable with," said Norton.

Parks Canada said if the province changes its mind and decides it does want to support the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen National Park, Parks Canada would recommence its feasibility assessment, but until then, "will not publicly engage stakeholders on the proposal at this time." 

With files from the CBC's Brady Strachan