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British Columbia B.C. parks bill’s ambiguity on ‘research’ opens door to exploitation, critics say

Spawning sockeye salmon are seen making their way up the Adams River in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park near Chase, B.C., Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak introduced Bill 4, she made it sound as if the government was saving the province's threatened parks.

In reality, the Park Amendment Act, which passed last week, may have paved the way for the erosion of some of the most sacred landscapes in the province.

In debate, Ms. Polak said the legislation was needed for "the protection of our parks and wild spaces," and to smooth the way "for commercial filming and for activities related to research."

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And who could find fault with that?

As it turns out, nobody really did. In the House, even NDP MLAs expressed support for aspects of Bill 4 that make it easier for researchers to conduct scientific studies and for the film industry to use B.C.'s beautiful parks for backdrops.

But questions were raised about the vague wording of the section related to "research." Critics said the term was so loosely defined that it could be interpreted to mean industrial activity.

"Let me be clear," Ms. Polak said, offering assurances during second reading. "These proposed amendments do not allow, promote, or otherwise enable industrial projects in parks and protected areas."

However, a skeptic might say "let me be clear" is a phrase politicians sometimes use when they want to obfuscate.

And that appears to be the case with Ms. Polak. The amendment does make it easier to film in parks, but it also states "feasibility studies" can be approved if they deal with the "location, design, construction, use, maintenance, improvement or deactivation, of … a road or highway; a pipeline; a transmission line; a telecommunications project … [or] a structure."

Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist and deputy leader of the Green Party of B.C., said in debate the government's broad wording was troubling.

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"I understand that there are some good parts of this legislation, but fundamentally, this legislation does not have a social licence to be brought in," he said. "The problem with how this legislation uses the term research is that it does not define this term. It does not give any limiting parameters around what types of research would or would not be allowed. It provides no guidelines on how the research activity is to be conducted."

NDP environment critic Spencer Herbert led the opposition attack on the bill. He tried, and failed to get the government to pull the legislation for six months to allow for public consultation.

"One of the oddest things about this place, this legislature, is that we don't do a very good job of talking to the people at all," Mr. Herbert said in debate. "In fact, many bills get brought before this House with zero consultation. This bill had zero consultation, and this bill changes how our parks are protected."

Mr. Herbert said parks are precious to British Columbians, and before the government brings in a bill that clears the way for pipelines or power corridors, it should widely consult the public.

"These are places that make our hearts beat a little faster, that make us breathe a little deeper, that provide us the wonders of the imagination, that renew the soul, that renew the spirit," he said, pleading for protection of B.C.'s parks.

But Ms. Polak rejected the request for delay, saying the government needed to get the bill through immediately.

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"The urgency comes here," she told the House. "In the time it takes for this amendment to be hoisted, and we then wait to perhaps reintroduce something, who knows how many proposals will be processed through without the benefit of the kind of research that could be permitted as a result of this amendment."

That convoluted statement is anything but clear, yet the government passed the legislation.

There appears to be no pent-up demand from the film industry to get into B.C.'s parks. So it seems she was alluding to the Liberals' urgent need to promote development.

Those who want to believe Bill 4 was brought in to help Hollywood can do so. But it's clear Bill 4 has a more disturbing potential – it makes it easier to do studies that could lead to the construction of pipelines, power lines and roads in B.C.'s sacred parks.

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