Government documents obtained by the Wilderness Committee suggest the province is “downplaying overwhelming public support for the designation of a large national park reserve in the South Okanagan.”
The conservation and environmental group obtained about 5,000 pages of documents through Freedom of Information about the public response to the government’s “Intentions Paper” released in August 2015 about protecting wilderness areas of the South Okanagan.
That paper proposed two small areas of national park reserve separated from each other – one south of Highway 3 and the other north of Oliver.
The largest area in between, which includes Mount Kobau, would remain under provincial control as a “conservancy,” which park supporters say offers minimal protections.
The documents “directly contradict” the government’s Consultation Summary Report released in May that “minimized both the level of support and interest in having all of the proposed protected area within the national park reserve,” the Wilderness Committee says in a news release.
The committee says 92 per cent of submissions to the B.C. government from individuals and 80.5 per cent of submissions from business, local government and other regional agencies were supportive of the strategy proposed in the paper to protect areas of the South Okanagan.
More than 70 per cent of the submissions from local communities also supported the B.C. government’s strategy for more protection, the Wilderness Committee says.
A majority of submissions recommended that Area 2, including Mount Kobau, be included in the national park reserve.
“Why the B.C. government has chosen to suppress information that shows the public overwhelmingly supports all areas, including Area 2 to be in the national park reserve is a mystery to us,” said Joe Foy, national campaign director with the Wilderness Committee.
“In our opinion, Victoria and local MLA Linda Larson need to pay more attention to feedback that came right from their own public consultation process,” said Foy.
The Osoyoos Times has requested comment from both the Ministry of Environment and MLA Larson.
Larson said the report provided by the government in May about the consultations does in fact accurately reflect the responses received, including the numbers of comments and cards from supporters of a national park. She questions why the Wilderness Committee has made its statements.
The Ministry of Environment did not respond specifically to a request for comment on the Wilderness Committee’s statements, but it did send talking points similar to those issued after the May report.
“It is clear that there are very strong opinions on both sides of this issue,” said the talking points. “Therefore, the province is looking for a solution that respects the diversity of opinion, but ultimately achieves the desired goal of effectively protecting important environmental and cultural values of the region.”
The 2010 Parks Canada proposal for a single national park is not up for reconsideration, the talking points continue.
More than 3,400 submissions were received with feedback on the Intentions Paper.
The ministry reiterated that it will develop final recommendations “to be released later this year,” and said it is continuing to engage with First Nations to better understand their interests and ensure they are reflected in a final proposal.
This story will be updated with more details of Larson’s response and those of other stakeholders.
By RICHARD McGUIRE