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Question Park

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Issue: 38 Section: Environment Geography: West British Columbia Topics: habitat

June 10, 2006

Question Park

Will one of Canada's most endangered ecosystems receive National Park status?

by Heather English

The South Okanagan Valley contains more ecological diversity than any other in British Columbia. photo: Dick Canning
When driving along Highway 3 in southern British Columbia, you'll find yourself looking out over the South Okanagan Valley; a landscape made up of a mosaic of green, yellow and brown shades, each a different ecosystem. From the bunchgrass ecosystem in the lower elevations to the alpine tundra in the mountaintops, this region contains more ecological diversity than any other in British Columbia. The valley bottoms support more than just ecological diversity; they also support a booming tourist economy, cattle ranching, agriculture and vineyards. The opposing interest groups in the region have made the proposal for a national park reserve controversial and the region's future uncertain.

In accordance with the federal government's commitment to create 10 new national parks by 2008, a national park reserve in the South Okanagan-Similkameen Valley region of B.C. is currently undergoing a feasibility study. This commitment is part of Parks Canada's mandate to represent all 39 of Canada's major terrestrial natural regions in the national park system. The South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Reserve would represent B.C.'s 'interior dry plateau' natural region.

As a result of its mountainous terrain and warm, dry climate, the South Okanagan-Similkameen valleys contain a myriad of diverse and rare ecosystems. Today, it is under heavy threat from vineyards, cattle ranching and urban sprawl. The local population is expected to increase by 12,000 over the next 15 years. This immense pressure has degraded the South Okanagan-Similkameen grasslands and ultimately led to its recognition as one of Canada's four most endangered ecosystems. Today, the valleys are home to more than one third of B.C.'s species at risk.

The proposal for a national park reserve is drawing passionate debate from both sides. Some argue that due to the dramatic degradation of the environment that has already occurred, a national park reserve in the region is the best possible designation for the protection of the landscape. Others say that a national park reserve is not necessary at all.

A small local group, the Grasslands Park Review Coalition (GPRC), has been vocal about its opposition to the establishment of this national park reserve. They say that the 2001 provincial Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) is adequate environmental protection and has support from local hunting groups, such as Ducks Unlimited. "These groups and initiatives continue to protect and conserve this great area while still allowing residents and the public to enjoy it," the GPRC states in a pamphlet distributed May 30, 2006. Others, such as local wildlife ecologists Dr. John and Mary Theberge, disagree.

Today, the valleys are home to more than one third of B.C.'s species at risk. photo: Dick Canning

They point out that the region is currently spotted with various provincial parks and protected areas that provide protection from logging and mineral extraction, but not from hunting or cattle grazing. A national park reserve would legislate against these activities. According to ecologists like the Theberges, the region has never naturally experienced heavy grazing by large mammals, like bison or elk. The cattle, they say, have grazed over much of the native bunchgrasses and thus facilitated the establishment of invasive species such as cheatgrass and enabled the domination of the ecosystem by woody shrubs, like sage.

The Western Canada Wilderness Committee's (WCWC) Ken Wu agrees, adding that the most effective protection will come in a sizeable national park reserve. Parks Canada is currently looking at the feasibility of including approximately 350 km2 of core land for the park, consisting largely of current provincial protected areas. "Over time on a willing buyer/willing seller basis, Parks Canada would seek to acquire lands adjacent to the protected areas," says National Park Reserve project manager Tom Hurd. The total area could be up to 600 km2; a figure still criticised by environmentalists for not being large enough.

Wu hopes that the final park boundaries will encompass at least 1000 km2, in order for the park to support larger populations of species, and include more ecologically significant areas. Conservationists are calling on Parks Canada to include the most endangered ecosystems, such as the pocket desert unique to this region and the deciduous forests/shrub wetlands along the Okanagan River. These ecosystems are mainly found on private lands and, as such, were not included in the provincial LRMP and in the 200 km2 Vaseux/White Lakes area, a mix of Crown lands, provincial protected areas, and private holdings.

But even if the park encompasses a substantial amount of highly diverse lands, can a national park truly mitigate the pressures of development and allow some of this ecosystem to return to its natural state? Yes, says Wu, as long as the park upholds the standards of the National Parks Act and does not allow cattle ranching or hunting on park lands. The GPRC strongly opposes the removal of these activities from the land base.

The GPRC is concerned that if a park is established, a loss of income, recreational activities, ranching tenures and land will soon follow. A section from the group's pamphlet reads, "Commercial ranching and logging, hunting, helicopter training, motorized vehicle recreation, trapping, mining, firewood cutting, will be extinguished." Wu disagrees, saying that the concerns are unfounded as only a small portion of the Okanagan-Similkameen region will be included in the park, and there are huge tracts of land outside the proposed boundaries for these activities. The National Parks Act, Wu adds, operates on a willing buyer/willing seller basis and, as such, no one will be forced from their land.

Both those working for the park and those who oppose it are actively seeking public support for their position. WCWC is running a petition drive and letter-writing campaign in support of the park, while the GPRC has been leafleting local residences. Without significant support from the public during the current feasibility process, a sizeable national park reserve is unlikely to materialize in this region.

Heather English is a member of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee

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