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Some groups say that the proposed national park in the South Okanagan area would eliminate local input.

Gwen Barlee/Wilderness Committee

Public support for a new national park in the South Okanagan continues to grow, but some influential organizations remain opposed to the proposal, which has been the subject of debate for several years.

A new report by the B.C. Ministry of Environment shows agreement is widespread that additional protection is needed for the "pocket desert" landscape near Osoyoos, but not on how that should be achieved. The area, in a dry belt recognized as Canada's only desert, is renowned for its sweeping grasslands and forested mountains.

Last summer, the provincial government released an intentions paper proposing ways to protect the land. Two areas were proposed for potential inclusion in a national park reserve, and another one was suggested as a provincial conservancy.

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After a public engagement exercise that drew more than 3,400 submissions on the proposals, BC Parks, a provincial agency, has released a report that makes no recommendation, but states "the public is very interested and passionate about issues of environmental protection, First Nations cultural values, tourism and recreation opportunities in the South Okanagan."

The report says the public feedback highlighted several key themes: the need to ensure "connectivity" between any parks and reserves in the area; the importance of preserving biodiversity; and the need to recognize the importance of hunting, fishing, tourism and ranching.

The B.C. government broke off talks with Ottawa over a proposed national park in the area in 2011 because opposition at the time was so strong. It is expected the provincial cabinet will use the feedback from the public consultation to make a decision about whether to resume talks or to pursue a provincial strategy.

"The provincial government will consider all feedback when developing the final recommendations, and continue to engage with First Nations to better understand their interests prior to any final decisions," BC Parks says on its website. "The province is expected to move forward on a decision later this year."

Peter Wood, director of terrestrial conservation for the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society, a charity dedicating to preserving public land and water, said the recent public comments, together with a poll done last year, should push British Columbia toward endorsing a national park.

"Over all, we think this is a positive story that contributes to moving forward [on the national park proposal]," Mr. Wood said.

A poll in April, 2015, showed 69 per cent of residents in the South Okanagan-Similkameen region favoured establishing a national park and 21 per cent were opposed.

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Mr. Wood noted that poll also found that 79 per cent of the families that were engaged in farming or ranching supported the national park concept, as did 70 per cent of those who identified as hunting families.

"I think there's been this misperception that it's [hunters and ranchers] who are against a national park," he said.

Mr. Wood also noted that the provincial report includes a list of 37 organizations that commented on the park proposals, and of those, only six groups opposed the national park concept. The rest were in favour.

"All that can happen now [given the feedback] is that [the provincial government] gets back to the table with the federal government," Mr. Wood said. "We know Parks Canada is chomping at the bit to get this new park. All they need is an expression of interest from Victoria."

But while a majority of the organizations support establishing a national park in the South Okanagan, some influential groups have reservations.

The BC Wildlife Federation – Okanagan Region, the Osoyoos Wildlife Federation and the Okanagan Similkameen Stock Association are among those that expressed opposition to the national park concept, according to an appendix attached to the provincial report.

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Aubrey White, past president of the Osoyoos Wildife Federation, said his members favour a provincial park rather than a national park.

"Once the feds take over, our local input is gone," Mr. White said. "The decisions are made far away, in Ottawa. That's the main objection."

Mr. White said another concern his members have is that while First Nations can hunt in national parks, non-aboriginals cannot. Provincial parks are open to hunting by all.

"We're happy to share," he said of Osoyoos Wildlife Federation members. "But to have special rights and special interests isn't a great way to get everyone together on the same page."

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