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Doreen Olsen stands in the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected Area Blue bunch wheatgrass near Osoyoos, B.C. August 21, 2014. Olsen would like to see the area made into a National Park. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Doreen Olsen stands in the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected Area Blue bunch wheatgrass near Osoyoos, B.C. August 21, 2014. Olsen would like to see the area made into a National Park. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Battle to create Grasslands park pits ecologists against ranchers Add to ...

Greg Byron stops his van, and the dust it has been kicking up during the ascent of Kruger Mountain momentarily hangs in the air. The area’s famous grasslands have given way to a growing forest of ponderosa pines, their branches the takeoff and landing site for Brewer’s sparrows and pygmy nuthatches and any number of species of birds that will spend the day scouring creases in the bark for insects.

Mr. Byron gathers his guests beside the edge of a mountain lake and points to a cluster of lily pads and a tangle of marsh reeds. “Do you see him?” he asks. Eventually a less discerning eye picks up the olive shell and the red, orange and yellow stripes of his neck. “That is your painted turtle,” says Mr. Byron, owner of Great Horned Owl Eco Tours. “Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t all this beautiful? Why you wouldn’t want to preserve this as a national park is simply beyond me. This is one of the most special and important places in the entire world.”

The tour operator has brought us to the eastern edges of the proposed Grasslands National Park, a 286-square-kilometre tract of land in the south Okanagan that is home to more endangered species than any other region in the country. The project has been the source of controversy almost from its inception, with hunters and some area ranchers opposed to any infringement on their daily pleasures and way of life.

A couple of years ago, the B.C. government broke off talks with the federal government on the park’s future, saying there was not enough consensus in the south Okanagan to continue having discussions. But now a new, pro-park coalition is attempting to pressure Victoria to get back to the table and at least hear Parks Canada out on the benefits associated with its proposal.

The group’s call comes amid heightening concerns that the integrity of the country’s parks system is under threat as a result of budget cuts and fresh pressure being applied by resource-based industries to open up more land to exploration. In a recent report, the Canada Parks and Wilderness Society pointed to changes made this year to the B.C. Parks Act as being particularly grievous. Those amendments allow industrial research in parks and make it easier to alter park boundaries to accommodate pipelines and other developments.

The latest offensive by Grassland park proponents is being led by some of the south Okanagan’s most prominent citizens. And their bid to get the park plan back on track has put them distinctly at odds with the region’s provincial political representative, Liberal MLA Linda Larson, who is firmly against the idea. Her position has led some to suggest she is simply repaying wealthy ranchers and others who financially supported her election campaign and who want nothing to do with a national park. The result is a fraught political and social environment that has seen tempers on either side of the debate sometimes get as hot as the summer weather here.

The dispute centres around land in the southern end of the Okanagan Valley that was created some 180 million years ago by a series of continental collisions. This was followed by a period of intense volcanic activity. Then the Ice Age arrived and the valley became a huge glacier. It eventually retreated, leaving the valley in the state one finds it today. But its history helps explain the rich topography of the valley, now one of the best wine-growing regions in North America.

Part of that landscape includes the desert grasslands that truly characterize the south Okanagan and set it apart from other valleys in the country. The area is home to a unique and thriving eco-system that boasts some of the rarest plant and animal species found anywhere on Earth. It is for this reason that Parks Canada wants to offer protection from future development by giving the area national park designation.

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