News Room

Opinion: Separating fact from fiction in the Okanagan

Jun 30. 15

By Maayan Kreitzman
Vancouver Sun

The South Okanagan Similkameen national park project has an undeserved image problem. For over three years, the B.C. government has put the brakes on the project, citing a lack of local support.

A powerful parks vs. people narrative has taken hold, painting a picture that area people don’t want a national park. But the latest public opinion poll about the park proposal, and two recent studies from UBC show the provincial government’s concern is ill-founded. All the evidence shows it’s wrong; that a national park is good for the South Okanagan Similkameen, and that area residents know that.

The image problem is basically that for years, anyone driving on Highway 3 near Oliver and Keremeos was confronted with a couple dozen signs decrying the proposed national park, leading the uninitiated driver to believe the predominant local view is anti-park. Yet polls suggest that most residents support the park.

Two recent reports from students at UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability strongly suggest the national park’s stalled status has little to do with public opinion or projected benefits on the ground and more to do with a few politically empowered opponents.

The first study showed the proposed park would provide benefits both locally and globally. Based on landscape models of habitat quality and carbon, it concluded that endangered species habitat, climate mitigation, and the provision of clean water and recreational opportunities would be enhanced by a national park. This adds to previous reports indicating a national park would likely yield significant economic benefits and jobs.

The second study considered the parks against local peoples narrative for several groups of stakeholders in the park process. This report found hunters, ATVers, and ranchers cannot be fairly characterized as antagonistic to the proposed park. Hunting and ATVing activities could still occur in nearby recreational areas. Many ranchers see the creation of the park as a way to preserve the open landscapes integral to their way of life in the face of suburban development; ranchers’ engagement with Parks Canada has yielded an innovative program to allow continued grazing of cattle within the park area.

The effects of the proposed park on First Nations people, represented by Okanagan Nations Alliance, deserve attention: the Syilx people might be justifiably suspicious of state appropriation of more land that is integral to their material, cultural and spiritual well-being. Yet, after a process of engagement with Parks Canada and the publication of their feasibility study, the ONA supports moving forward on the park.

A recent poll conducted by McAllister Opinion Research demonstrates that residents understand these benefits. The poll, conducted in the three ridings, showed increased public support for the park from 2-1 in favour in 2010 to 3-1 in 2015. According to the poll, which reached 501 households, the groups thought to be most vigorously opposed to the park (ranchers, hunters, and ATV users), are equally or more supportive of it than the public. At 79 per cent in favour, farming or ranching households were most likely to support a national park.

So, who opposes this park? The name that crops up most often is Greg Norton, the self-styled leader of the Grasslands Review Coalition, a group of uncertain provenance and unknown membership. He was also the riding association president for MLA Linda Larson, who likewise opposes the national park. The two remain stalwart in the face of evidence and solid polling numbers. Yet the B.C. Liberal leadership is vulnerable to their sway and impervious to the advocacy of a much larger number of diverse grassroots voices, including chambers of commerce, municipalities, citizen groups, the hospitality industry, naturalist clubs, and environmental NGOs.

The province says it also cares about preserving the diversity of the South Okanagan Similkameen through existing provincial protected areas. But the provincial park system cannot compete with the influx of millions of federal dollars for conservation, education, and park infrastructure that would accompany a new national park. Maintaining the status quo means a continual degradation of the landscape. The evidence for the many benefits of the national park, backed by solid area support, make clear the feeble excuses for its rejection are far more fiction that fact.

Maayan Kreitzman is a PhD student in resources environment and sustainability at UBC; Maery Kaplan-Hallam, is a Master student in resources environment and sustainability at UBC; Kai Chan is Canada Research chair (tier 2) and associate professor in resources environment and sustainability at UBC.

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Photo Credit: VinceTraveller (via flickr)

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