|By Lyonel Doherty
Tuesday’s signing of the Memorandum of Understanding for the proposed national park reserve means very little in the grand scheme of things, according to the South Okanagan Similkameen Preservation Society.
“It has zero binding effect,” said spokesperson Lionel Trudel. “They could have signed nothing and still had the same effect.”
On July 2 in Osoyoos, the federal and provincial environment ministers, plus two local Indian band chiefs signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to negotiate the creation of the park.
A flurry of news headlines ensued, including one that suggested the park received a “green light” of approval. Another one read: ‘National park reserve gets the go-ahead.’
Local media received a press release from the South Okanagan Similkameen National Park Network at 8:38 a.m on Tuesday, about two hours before the official signing took place. That release heralded the MOU and its meaning for biodiversity protection.
Network coordinator Doreen Olson said their 15-year campaign to protect this area has now been rewarded by the MOU.
“We’ve been working relentlessly towards getting this special place protected as it is truly a remarkable ecosystem. We are particularly pleased that the Syilx Nation will have a permanent role in the governance of the national park reserve.”
Olson said it is now critical for the federal government to purchase the key private lands, and to ensure that future negotiations will include protection for the White Lake and Vaseux Lake regions.
Negotiations will now commence to finalize the boundaries of the park, which is 273 square kilometres of natural and cultural landscapes in the Mount Kobau, Spotted Lake and Kilpoola areas.
According to Kevin McNamee, Parks Canada’s director of protected areas, negotiating an agreement would take about two years.
Parks Canada says enhancing this area’s protection would support the recovery of more than 30 federally listed species at risk, and over 60 provincially listed species, including American badgers, nocturnal owls, yellow-breasted chats and desert night snakes.
Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the region is an “ecological wonder” and a haven for wildlife and species at risk.
Her provincial counterpart George Heyman said the MOU is a valuable opportunity to advance reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie agreed, saying the partnerhsip bolsters their laws to uphold, protect and advance the aboriginal title and rights of their people.
But Trudel is left scratching his head as to why, only two months ago, Louie said he wasn’t for or against the national park concept.
The chief noted he was only in favor of the park if the negotiations led to an agreement that covers off many issues and concerns that First Nations have relating to aboriginal title and rights, including hunting and fishing.
On Wednesday, the Oliver Chronicle asked Louie if Tuesday’s signing changed his viewpoint, resulting in him lending more support to the park concept.
“Nope. The MOU (merely) sets out the framework for negotiations, and in any negotiations — even buying a car — you might see a vehicle you like and want, but in the negotiations many issues can come up, many issues of disagreement can happen and the negotiations don’t consummate a final deal.”
Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson said her concerns haven’t changed either.
“I still believe the province could have used their famous ‘tool box’ to do the necessary protections and partnerships with First Nations without giving the land to the federal government.
She pointed to the former Okanagan-Shuswap Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) that identified nearly 50 new protected areas.
“I still believe the LRMP is a good document to work from moving forward.”
Larson had strongly promoted a local referendum to decide the national park issue in the South Okanagan, but conceded that the federal government wouldn’t be bound by such a plebiscite.
“So it would probably be a waste of time and money, but I know of no other way for people to have a say and get it over with.”
Parks Canada did have a public consultation period to gather local opinion on the park. The final report acknowledged there are concerns about how the land would be managed and how its use would change once the park was established. One major concern is the continuation of cattle grazing.
As for visitor numbers, Parks Canada project manager Sarah Boyle estimates the park would draw between 2,000 and 4,000 visitors to the area every year.
But a previous poll commissioned by the Preservation Society indicated that 35 per cent of the 300 people polled were strongly opposed to the park, while 27 per cent strongly supported the concept.
Trudel said Tuesday’s MOU was an event that very few people could attend, being that it was the morning after a long weekend.
“Who could make time to go or protest? They (government) were preaching to the choir.”
At least one person was wearing a “No National Park” shirt, and another heckled local MP Richard Cannings when he spoke in support of the park.
Trudel estimated that nearly 40 federal employees were there, being paid $20 to $30 per hour, with consultants at $150 per hour, all provided with a buffet lunch. In total, he said the event likely cost the taxpayer about $30,000.
“That’s great insight in how they do business, spending with zero accountability,” Trudel said.
Moving forward, he said the Preservation Society will continue to promote its objectives in creating a park reserve without the involvement of the federal government, which he argues is wallowing in billions of dollars in debt maintaining its national parks.
Trudel said their vision of a park reserve mirrors the White Lake Grasslands Protected Area that plays an important role in conserving many red and blue-listed wildlife and plants.
He also points to Oliver Mountain, a “great example” of co-existence between environmentalists and recreationists.
“We want the exact same thing for Kobau Mountain.”