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British Columbia Push to create Okanagan nature reserve no walk in the park

Doreen Olson outside her home near O.K. Falls, B.C.

Jake Sherman /The Globe and Mail

Doreen Olson stops the conversation to regard a trio of hummingbirds that has descended on one of the feeders hanging outside the log home she has occupied now for 25 years.

The hummingbirds are regular guests, as are screech owls and nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers, some of which are included on federal and provincial endangered species lists. In the time she has lived in this quiet Okanagan community, she has counted more than 140 different species of birds on her 31-hectare property. She once operated a birdwatcher’s bed and breakfast out of her home until she grew weary of its demands.

“It didn’t take long after arriving here [in 1994] that I realized just how special the habitat is,” Ms. Olson tells me, sitting at her large kitchen table. “I owned a horse for a time when I first got up here and we used to ride all around the area. And every time we went out I saw something incredible, something that really amazed me.”

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Ms. Olson’s name has become synonymous with one of the most contentious projects ever proposed for the area: the South Okanagan national park reserve. In some cases, the debate surrounding its future has pitted neighbour against neighbour, and has led to fractures in the surrounding community that will be felt for years.

That debate has taken on fresh urgency in light of new studies showing that the number of at-risk species globally is growing at an alarming rate. This has led governments in Ottawa and Victoria to push ahead with the park plan, despite a vocal opposition. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would put the park on the path to becoming reality could be in place as early as next month.

The park would encompass the northern edge of the Great Basin, and the shrub steppe ecosystem includes the only pockets of semi-arid desert in the country. It is home to more than 30 species on the federal government’s at-risk list, including birds, mammals and plants not found anywhere else in Canada. Eleven per cent of the threatened species in the country exist here, including the flammulated owl and the Great Basin spadefoot toad. There are more than 200 species of birds in the valley, 14 species of bats. There are more than 700 species of wildflowers and 200 species of grasses.

Ms. Olson has been a vocal backer of the concept since it was first given life back in 2002. In the interim, she has had her hopes swell and crash more than once. She has been the target of vitriol from area hunters, ranchers and others who see the venture ruining a way of life they have enjoyed for generations.

If the park goes through, they would no longer be able to hunt inside its boundaries, or go bombing around its hills and valleys in their all-terrain vehicles. Opponents have littered the sides of highways in the region with giant “no park” signs. Placards in support of the park have been vandalized so regularly proponents have given up erecting them.

A number of years ago, the province and the federal government signed a memorandum of understanding to study the park concept further. But in 2011, under the then-provincial leadership of premier Christy Clark, the government had a change of heart. It pulled its support, citing opposition it insisted was widespread – despite polls showing just the opposite.

But Ms. Olson, co-ordinator of the South Okanagan Similkameen National Park Network, refused to give up. A loose collection of environmental and conservation groups in support of trying to preserve and protect the area’s unique ecosystem, the SOSNPN kept its campaign operational. And then two important things happened: the federal Liberals were elected in Ottawa in 2015 and the NDP unexpectedly formed government in B.C. two years later. Both had environment ministers pushing conservation agendas. The NDP wasn’t in power more than a few months before Environment Minister George Heyman and his federal counterpart, Catherine McKenna, were holding a news conference in Osoyoos to announce that the park idea was very much back on.

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Parks Canada took over the lead, broadly consulting the affected communities on its plans. It has not been easy work.

“People are very passionate about where they live and conserving this area in the long term and maintaining land use and the way they’ve used the land in the past,” Sarah Boyle, project manager for Parks Canada, told me during a break at a recent public information session in Osoyoos.

Ms. Boyle said the biggest obstacle the park faces is the enormous amount of misinformation that exists about what will happen if it goes through. One persistent falsehood is that ranching and grazing will be prohibited inside the park’s boundaries. That’s simply not true, said Ms. Boyle, and yet that myth persists.

“It’s true that there would be no ATVs or hunting allowed,” she said. “But they are simply not activities permitted in a national park setting.”

It says something about the emotional tenor of the debate that outside the community centre where the information meeting was held, there was an ambulance and security guard. Some public meetings on the park have been loud and heated. Ms. Boyle says she has never felt personally threatened.

Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff says there are a lot of people, especially around the town of Oliver, who simply don’t want change. She supports the park and says Parks Canada has modified the plan several times from its earliest incarnation – the reserve would be less than half the size of the original concept of 600 square kilometres – which shows there have been compromises made.

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“But the naysayers have been very loud and lately very organized,” says the mayor, who has lived in the area for 50-plus years. “But I look at the greater good. This is a special area and we need to protect what’s in it. We have to do our part to help solve a problem that really is global in scope.”

Indeed, debate around the park is timely. Recently, the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform and Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services panel published a study suggesting one million of the planet’s eight million species are threatened with extinction as a result of an ever-growing population that is shrinking habitat. Climate change and pollution were also blamed for the phenomenon.

Jim Wyse, a renowned area vintner and conservationist, has been lobbying for the park for almost 10 years now. Along with his wife, Midge, the pair have led an effort to revive the endangered burrowing owl, after which their winery is named. Like Doreen Olson, Mr. Wyse has had his park hopes raised and dashed more times than he cares to remember. This time he’s more optimistic than ever, although he does worry what may happen if there is a change in government in Ottawa come the fall.

“I think what we want is to have this project get to the point of no return,” Mr. Wyse told me over coffee at a Tim Hortons in Osoyoos. “Because, honestly, we’re all getting a little tired of the fight. It’s exhausting. What keeps us going is the knowledge that we know we’re right; this land is too important not to protect permanently.”

Outside the public consultation session held by Parks Canada, a group of protesters held signs that made plain their opposition to the project. Placards read: “Parks Canada Go Away” and “Keep the South Okanagan Free For All To Enjoy.” Another signed called for a referendum on the park.

“There’s all sorts of reasons to oppose this park,” said Dustin Stephens, an Osoyoos resident and spokesman for the group. “They don’t have a proper fire management plan for starters. It’s a BS plan where you jump into a helicopter with four firemen and try and fight the blaze. It’s a joke.

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“But they won’t tell us things either, like where the interpretative centre will be, or access roads. But the big thing is, I’ve been coming into this area where the park will be for years and it’s better protected now than it’s ever been. I think these guys are grossly exaggerating the threat to the ecosystem. We also know there is another plan they’re not telling us about, a hidden agenda. They will expand this park as soon as it’s approved.”

(Parks Canada says there is a comprehensive fire plan in place that involves multiple agencies).

Mr. Stephens would like to see a referendum, one he’s sure would result in the park’s defeat. The South Okanagan Similkameen Preservation Society – which despite its conservationist name actually opposes the park – recently published the results of a poll that indicated more people were against the project than for it. However, many questioned the validity of the survey, saying those polled lived mainly in areas where opposition to the park is highest.

“In 2016 this project was supposed to be dead for good,” Mr. Stephens said. “Now here they are trying to shove it down our throats again. It’s ridiculous. I’ll tell you one thing, Parks Canada is creating divisions in our community that is not a good thing. They are divisions that will take a long, long time if ever to heal.”

Federal Environment Minister McKenna remains an enthusiastic backer. She’s made two trips to the area and hopes to make another soon if an MOU is ready to be signed by Ottawa, the province and the Syilx First Nation. Sources say a document could be ready for signatures as early as July, if concerns of the Osoyoos Indian Band and its Chief Clarence Louie are addressed.

The Chief said in an e-mail: “I have always supported the concept of [the park] if details can be worked out in First Nations favour – in any project there is usually support in the concept and that continued support depends on how the detailed negotiations go.”

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Chief Louie refused to answer any questions about the band’s specific concerns. Ms. McKenna said in an interview that she is confident any issues can be addressed. Eight bands make up the Syilx.

“I’m feeling extremely positive,” Ms. McKenna told me in an interview. “I know there are people who have some concerns but some of them are based on misconceptions. We’re trying to get the true facts in people’s hands and when we do I think a lot of those fears will be allayed.

“I’m really optimistic we will have something to announce very soon.”

Kevin McNamee, director of protected areas establishment for Parks Canada, says the signing of an MOU only begins the process of making the park reserve a reality. (The word “reserve” signifies that within the park boundaries there are outstanding land claims yet to be dealt with by the courts).

Mr. McNamee has been in his position for 19 years and has overseen the negotiations of many different parks. Each one has its own complexities and the South Okanagan proposal is no different.

“This one has a complexity of land-use issues that would have to be dealt with including water access that is part of the ranching and grazing piece,” he told me in Osoyoos. “We would also start looking at acquiring the land and having protected provincial areas transferred to us.”

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There would be some private land that would need to be purchased on a willing-seller, willing-buyer basis. (One prominent local cattle rancher, Ace Elkink, has agreed to sell his entire property to make the park a reality. It comprises more than 50 per cent of the private land that would be included in the revised park boundaries). Mr. McNamee said that once all the available land is assembled, you would have something that could be called a park, something that could be managed and administered.

He conceded, however, that it could be years more before there is something resembling a finished product, with park rangers and infrastructure in place that would include trails and observation stations.

“I think if there is an MOU signed this summer you could start visiting something called a national park reserve in three years,” he said. “That is the most optimistic view. But there is a unique opportunity to do something special here; grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet and we have a chance to preserve them for future generations.”

Back at her home in Okanagan Falls, Ms. Olson says rumours of an MOU being signed next month make her happy but anxious. She doesn’t want to get too excited because she’s seen this movie before and it didn’t have a happy ending.

She’s hoping this version does.

“I’m really hoping I can pop the champagne one day soon,” she says. “It would be a tremendous accomplishment that would have many people’s fingerprints on it.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling for the Syilx First Nation and incorrectly said it includes two bands. This version has been corrected.

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