The national park debate is heating up again. Residents of the Lower Similkameen, including local ranchers and representatives of Canadian Helicopters gathered in a pasture off Beck’s Road on Barrington Ranch on Wednesday, Nov. 30 to express their continuing opposition to the creation of a national park in the region.
Approximately 80 people, from many different walks of life, including children, youth, adults and seniors turned out to demonstrate their opposition to the park proposal.
“The point was to respond to public comment, press releases and advertising released by members of the pro-park community that indicate that discussions are ongoing and oppostition to the park has declined,” stated Grassland Park Review Coalition spokesman Greg Norton. “These statements misrepresent reality, and we wanted to point that out.”
Norton feels that opposition to the park is stronger now than it was eight years ago when the proposal first surfaced.
“Virtually every tenure holder in the area is opposed to the park. Parks Canada reps may have spoken to individual ranchers in the area, but that doesn’t mean there has been any negotiation, or support,” Norton said, adding that the rhetoric was not coming from Parks Canada, but from corporate environmentalists.
“This is the biggest land use decision in the area since the introduction of the Agricultural Land Reserve in 1972,” Norton continued, “and there has been no real public discussion on it in eight years.”
Keremeos resident Ken Sward, regional president for the Okanagan region chapter of the BC Wildlife Federation, told the Review that he had recently undertaken discussions with MLA John Slater, but had been unable to receive a definitive answer regarding the region’s national park status.
“It’s frustrating for local residents who find it difficult to plan their future as it relates to business ventures because of indecisiveness on the part of the federal and provincial governments,” Sward said.
“The BC Wildlife Federation’s Okanagan Region and the provincial body still maintain the position of being opposed to the establishment of a national park in the South Okanagan – Similkameen,” he added. “The memorandum of understanding between the federal and provincial governments (with respect to the national park feasibility study) is now over three years past its due date, which in many people’s opinion renders that MOU out of date.
That feasibility study is also eight years old, and redundant as well. The BC Wildlife Federation supports the Grasslands Park Review Coalition as as the leading body in local conservation matters,” he concluded.
Mark Quaedvlieg, a Similkameen rancher who is currently president of the Keremeos Stock Breeders Association, said that Parks Canada had been in attendance at Land Resource Management Planning (LRMP) several years ago, but have been avoiding meetings lately.
“Last summer, I believe they were meeting with ranchers on a one to one basis,” he said, “my feeling is there is not much to discuss, because they have nothing to offer.”
Quaedvlieg noted that the federal mandate for national parks does not allow cattle grazing and he doesn’t see that likely to change. Canada Parks had met recently with BC Livestock representatives rather than meeting with the ranchers in the area.
“If they were able to pick up the Elkink ranch and the various protected areas, they might have the nucleus of a park, but the sale of private land for the park will be up to the individual, and the tenure holders and those with industry permits for Crown land will not likely give them up,” he added, noting that attempts to “build relationships” through friendly, non confrontational ways were fine but offered little substance from which dialogue could take place.
Dave Casorso, President of the White Lake Stock Association, told the Review that his association felt that none of their concerns had yet been addressed.
“We’ve been trying to meet with Parks Canada as a group,” he said, “they have been negotiating with individual ranchers. There are no ranchers in the White Lake area in favour of selling or giving up their ranching rights.”
Information about the park proposisiton was distributed by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) early in November, provided mainly for municipal and regional candidates participating in the civic elections.
The bulletin noted that there was “small yet vocal opposition to the park, but most of their concerns have been resolved in the new national park concept plan and in Parks Canada’s conversations with ranchers and First Nations.” CPAWS also noted in the bulletin that Parks Canada had met one on one with individual ranchers and was “re-engaging them in a collaborative conversation, and providing a solution oriented approach to address their concerns.”
Mention was made of the 2003 Memorandum of Understanding, noting that a park concept plan had been introduced in 2006 and revised four years later, “to address local concerns.”
Finally, it was noted that in the Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) a national park had not been considered an option, so was not discussed. CPAWS added that “Some say LRMP results are enough – but a national park wiil provide much more significant regional benefits than the provincial parks and current land and water use patterns.”
The document uged candidates to “Think prosperity – without cost to your municipality. Support the national park!”
Still, that “small but vocal” opposition remains. It should be noted that it is largely a local opposition as well – and still very suspicious of Parks Canada’s messages on the issues.
“We don’t believe a national park will work for us at all. In our opinion, a national park would be a detriment to our business,” said Jan Rustad, Penticton base manager for Canadian Helicopters. The company has been using the skies above the proposed park terrain for mountain flying training since the late 1940’s, developing an international reputation and in the process, stimulating the local airport and tourism economies by way of the large number of international students who train out of the base.
“There is no amendment for helicopter operations in national parks, and I can’t see that there ever will be, “ Rustad explained. “They can make all the promises they want at this point, but once the park is a reality, the operators will have something different to say.
No matter what they say at this point, we do not want to see a national park here. The existing protections are adequate.”
Rustad is unaware of the company having had any contact with Parks Canada for at least the past year
“Our stand on the issue remains unchanged. It seems as though Parks Canada is avoiding potentially harmful discussions and glossing over what is really going on. Any further time spent on the assessment at this point is wasting taxpayers’ money to ram this down our throats,” he concluded.
Attempts to contact local Parks Canada spokeperson Bruno Delesalle failed, but Debbie Clarke, Aboriginal Relations/Community Liaison for South Okanagan – Lower Similkameen Protected Area Establishment Branch responded to queries from the Review regarding Parks Canada’s present position on the park proposal.
Clarke answered, “Work is continuing towards concluding an assessment of whether it is feasible to establish a national park reserve in the South Okanagan – Lower Similkameen region. There are no negotiations underway on any aspect of this project.
Over the last year, collaborative work with the Southern Bands of the Okanagan First Nation has built shared understandings, and common interest in protecting the land for future generations.
Another priority has been working towards a collaborative approach with ranchers and the ranching industry over the long term.
Canadian Helicopters has been assured that their existing operations could continue within a national park reserve.
There are no negotiations underway at this time. If the proposal for a new national park reserve proceeds to the next step, detailed negotiations would address specific issues.”
Ace Elkink, a rancher in the Richter Pass with substantial land holdings within the national park proposed footprint, told the Review that Parks Canada officials had been discussing the park issue for some time. He noted that Parks Canada had been meeting with individual ranchers, but had also been trying to set up a general meeting involving all potentially affected landowners.
“Would you sooner see a subdivision or have it left the way it is?” he responded to a question regarding his views on the issue.
“You have to look down the road 20 years or so. That’s the way it’s going to be. People want to live here.”
Elkink feels the park proposal is the only way to protect the area from inevitable development. As far as protecting existing rights of ranchers to graze, Elkink is under the impression that a national park in the area will not affect grazing rights.
“Rather than restrict grazing rights, they (Parks Canada) are going the other way,” he said, citing Parks Canada’s recent experience in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, where it has been determined that it is beneficial to the regeneration of the grasslands.
“The only difference will be that ranchers will be dealing with Parks Canada instead of forestry,” he said.
A query regarding the Lower Similkameen Indian Band’s present position on the national park issue had not been answered by press time this week. The band gave an unequivocal “no” to a national park and refused to enter into negotiations at a National Day of Action native rally in May of 2008, under the direction of then chief Joe Dennis. It is unknown if the band’s official position has since changed under the leadership of present chief Rob Edwards, but apparently some discussion with Parks Canada officials has been taking place in recent months.