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A proposed national park for the South Okanagan Similkameen area has ignited a heated debate that has pitting neighbour against neighbour.Gwen Barlee / Wilderness Committee

When British Columbia rejected a new national park in the South Okanagan earlier this year, the government cited a lack of public support for a proposal that would have protected "one of the driest, hottest and most threatened ecosystems in Canada."

The decision was made even though the government had in its possession a study that showed twice as many local residents in support of the park as opposed.

But B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake defended the decision Monday, saying he felt the level of support wasn't enough to justify such a dramatic shift in land use.

"It is all in how you look at that data," he said, acknowledging the government had poll results showing about 39 per cent of respondents slightly or strongly supported the proposed park, while only about 19 per cent were slightly or strongly opposed. The remaining roughly 41 per cent said they neither supported nor opposed the proposal, didn't know, or needed more information before deciding.

Mr. Lake said 39-per-cent support isn't enough to justify establishing a national park in a region where logging, ranching, hunting and other activities would be impacted.

"So, the way I look at it is … if you are going to make a huge change to the land base, that's going to affect peoples' livelihoods … then I think there should be more than tepid local support," said Mr. Lake.

"I know there's a lot of people outside the area that think it's a great idea and I completely understand that … I support the principle, but I think it's critical to have local support that is more than the level we are seeing here, otherwise it divides communities," he said.

Bob Peart, a member of the Elders Council for Parks in B.C., said he was surprised the government justified its rejection of the national park proposal on the basis of the public-opinion results.

"If two to one isn't strong enough support, what would be?" asks Mr. Peart.

He said he thinks Mr. Lake and other Liberal members are more worried about upsetting ranchers and hunters than in what the majority of the people in the South Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys want.

The proposal had been under study for nearly a decade when Mr. Lake suddenly pulled the plug in January, ending a federal-provincial process that seemed on track to establish a park reserve in time to mark Parks Canada's 100th anniversary in 2011.

At the time, Mr. Lake said the decision was made because a joint federal-provincial feasibility study "recognized there was a large contingent of people opposed to the initiative."

That feasibility study, completed early in 2011, was never released, but a copy obtained by The Globe and Mail shows a random mail survey drew 777 responses and "indicated that overall, supporters outnumbered opposition by approximately 2:1."

There were also several open houses that drew 1,800 people and that helped Parks Canada modify its proposal, changing proposed borders in an attempt to diminish conflicts with resource users.

"Feedback has generally been positive, however, there continues to be some local opposition, primarily from sportsman groups and motorized recreation users," states the feasibility study.

The report states the park would have a positive economic impact on the small towns nearby, but some logging and mining rights would be curtailed and cattle grazing would have to be stopped in some areas.

It called for the establishment of a national park reserve and said the federal, provincial and first nation governments could then begin working on putting all the pieces in place to make it a full national park, covering about 300 square kilometres.

When Mr. Lake rejected the proposal, Parks Canada posted a notice on its website saying it couldn't proceed without provincial government support.