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More Than a Memo?

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Issue: 14 Section: Environment Geography: West British Columbia Topics: Mining

February 3, 2004

More Than a Memo?

Legislating the integrity of British Columbia's parks

by Kate Kennedy

After spending decades establishing its world class park system, British Columbia may be leaving its wilderness up to expressions of good will in lieu of legislation. On Thursday, January 22, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the BC and Yukon Chamber of Mines, the Mining Association of British Columbia, and the Council of Tourism Associations of British Columbia. The memorandum is not binding, though.

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Outside the South Chilcotin Mountains Park, where mining companies are lobbying for a smaller protected area. photo: Kate Kennedy

Gwen Barlee, a policy director with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's BC chapter, calls the agreement "a good faith commitment" from the mining industry to respect the province's parks system.

The agreement may be significant for South Chilcotin Mountains Park in particular, where mining companies have been lobbying for a smaller protected area in order to provide access for mineral exploration inside current park boundaries. One of British Columbia's newest provincial parks, South Chilcotin was established on April 17, 2001, following five years of negotiations in the Lillooet Land Resource Management Plan. The process resulted in the proposal for the South Chilcotin and 13 other protected areas in the region as a 71,400 hectare area 80 kilometres north of Whistler. When this area achieved park status, the announcement represented a victory for those who had campaigned for its protection.

But as David R. Boyd, author of Unnatural Law: Rethinking Canadian Environmental Law and Policy (2003) says: "Relying on most current provincial and territorial park laws to protect biodiversity is like expecting a security firm's sticker in your window to protect your home." The recent pressure from the mining community on the South Chilcotin Mountains Park is not the first or the least worrying threat to this and other provincial parks in BC.

On November 18, 2003, the province introduced Bill 84, the "Parks and Protected Areas Statutes Amendment Act, 2003." It is an amendment to the Provincial Park Act that authorizes oil and gas exploration beneath park land, changes the boundaries of seven existing parks, and affects the classification of new parks. Mark Haddock, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, refers to classification as a way of ensuring that there is some legal effect to the purpose of the park being created. Until recently, legislation dictated that provincial parks in BC had to be classified upon creation in order to define their primary purpose.

This is similar to the concept of zoning in municipalities and was designed to ensure that, for example, a park (or portion of a park) designated for the protection of a particular animal species would not be subject to commercial or recreational development in that animal's habitat. By no longer requiring classification of a park at the time of its establishment, the province has made it significantly easier for development to take place in ecologically sensitive areas. It leaves the decision up to the Minister of Water, Land, and Air Protection, and on the whole makes the Park Act and the areas covered under it somewhat discretionary.

In fact, Haddock says, the ministry had largely ceased to classify parks even before the amendments came into effect.

When asked whether this had been raised publicly, Haddock responded, "I don't think people were aware." According to Haddock, this problem is not only a matter of legislation, but also of funding. "The parks budget has always been miniscule in BC," he said, and with additional cuts to parks staff more recently, the capacity to create master plans for these areas has been severely limited. Ultimately, this may have had the effect of limiting public awareness about what happens within park boundaries with respect to planning and the maintenance of ecological integrity. It begs the question of whether increased funding for parks might have permitted more attention to the specifics of the Park Act and the degree to which it has been followed.

Friday's announcement is good news for the park if it signifies, as Gwen Barlee states, that the mining community is "backing off the attack on BC's parks." Still, this promise needs to be considered in the context of the amendments contained in Bill 84 and the increasing fragility of protected areas legislation.

A memorandum of understanding is not legally binding nor formally connected to the legislation that governs the creation and maintenance of protected areas. With the Park Act itself no longer the legislation it once was, does the future of BC's remaining wilderness areas depend on these kinds of occasional gestures? Or will the province take steps to maintain the integrity of the parks system that it once used to define itself?

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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