COLUMN: A national park in the south Okanagan?

From MP Richard Cannings

Federal and provincial environment ministers and local First Nations chiefs announced last week that they will re-open talks to create a national park in the South Okanagan. This was the latest step in long process that began in 2002, when a delegation of local mayors, First Nations leaders, and other concerned citizens met with Prime Minister Jean Chretien to convince him that a national park was needed in this area.

That visit led to a federal-provincial agreement, and in 2011 a feasibility study recommended proceeding with the park proposal. The provincial government subsequently dropped out of the process, but re-entered it in 2016 with an intentions paper that eventually announced a renewed interest in a national park.

I believe that a national park would be a tremendous legacy for the area, both in terms of conservation, the economic activity it would stimulate, and the facilities it would provide for resident and visitors alike.

Scientific public opinion polls have found strong support for the park proposal in the region, however it’s understandable that many local residents have questions and concerns.

I’d like to cover a few of those here, with the caveat that I can’t presume to know all the exact details of the final park proposal, since many of them will be worked out over the months (and years) to come.

What area is covered by the park proposal? Previous park boundaries outlined in the 2011 feasibility study and the provincial intentions paper would suggest that the park would consist of the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected Area (Crown Lands on the east side of the Okanagan Valley from Mount Kobau south), and perhaps also the White Lake Grasslands Protected Area (Crown Lands southwest of Okanagan Falls) and the Vaseux Bighorn National Wildlife area.

Private lands are not included, as they would only be added to the park on a willing seller basis. There will be no change in private land use regulations in place now as the result of a new park.

Ranching: It’s important that any new park proposal should accommodate people who make their livelihoods on the Crown Lands in question, so it is heartening to hear that Parks Canada has indicated that this would be the first National Park allowing grazing exactly as it had been done under provincial regulations.

Helicopter training: HNZ Topflight is a significant economic driver in the South Okanagan. They now operate under permit with BC Parks and would have to obtain a similar permit from Parks Canada when a new park is established. I recently met with HNZ, and they have already met with Parks Canada about their concerns; they are “cautiously optimistic” that this issue will be resolved to their satisfaction.

Fishing is allowed in national parks.

Firewood cutting is already not allowed in the provincial protected areas that could become part of the new national park. Most people I’ve talked to get their firewood on the east side of the Okanagan Valley in areas not included in the previously proposed park boundaries.

If you have other concerns or comments, please email me at Richard.Cannings@parl.gc.ca.

Richard Cannings is the MP South Okanagan-West Kootenay, part of which is in the Nelson Star’s coverage area.

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