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B.C. pulled out of talks with Ottawa over a national grasslands park in 2011, after lobbying from hunters and ranchers. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
B.C. pulled out of talks with Ottawa over a national grasslands park in 2011, after lobbying from hunters and ranchers. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

gary mason

B.C.’s Okanagan national park plan goes off the rails Add to ...

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which the B.C. government-led process examining the feasibility of establishing a national park in the south Okanagan has been bungled and completely undermined.

Residents of the area who were hoping for a neutral and considered review of all of the issues have every right to be furious with the government and local Liberal MLA Linda Larson. Every day, it seems, the park storyline takes a new, bizarre twist, with each fresh development casting more doubt on the entire process.

To appreciate how badly botched this entire affair has been, a little background is necessary.

The south Okanagan contains one of the most important ecosystems in the world, with nearly 60 federally listed endangered species. At one time, the province was in talks with Ottawa about turning a large swath of the area into a national grasslands park, with all the protections that went with it. B.C. pulled out of the talks in 2011, mostly as the result of opposition from a small but vocal group of hunters and ranchers – many of whom supported the provincial Liberal Party.

In 2013, Ms. Larson, a staunch opponent of any kind of national park, became the local Liberal MLA. Park proponents did not give up, however, and sentiment in the region for a national park continued to swell, with polls showing a vast majority of those living in the area were in favour. The business community also firmly placed its support behind the national park plan because of the tourism and related economic benefits it offered.

This pressure forced the government to take another look at the idea. In the summer, it released an intentions paper that outlined what it imagined could be the foundation of a national park plan. But it fell far short of what advocates were hoping for, and left out a large area that included Mount Kobau. The province’s plan would have divided any national park into two almost insignificant areas that would not even be connected. The area excluded was the one most important to the hunting and ranching lobby.

It needs to be said that one of the most important ranchers in the area, and the one who owns most of the ranch land in the territory that includes Mount Kobau, is a national park proponent who is prepared to sell to make the park happen.

Then the entire process went off the rails.

It was recently disclosed that Ms. Larson had set up an anonymous five-person focus group to review the hundreds of public submissions the government had invited in response to its intentions paper. The Liberal MLA told the Osoyoos Times the group would distill all of the submissions and present a summary to the Ministry of Environment. She also offered the assurance her task force was comprised of people who represented all sides of the park debate – but people would have to take her word for it.

In a subsequent interview with the CBC Radio program Daybreak South, Ms. Larson said she gave Environment Minister Mary Polak a list of names and organizations that should be considered for the focus group – on top of names the minister had – and out of that group Ms. Polak picked the final five. In a later interview, Ms. Larson said the group was “randomly selected.”

Not surprisingly, news of a secret committee to be overseen by Ms. Larson did not go over well. People were furious, especially park proponents who were skeptical about Ms. Larson’s ability to pick an unbiased group given her fierce opposition to any national park. And beyond that, people wondered why this group was being given the exclusive opportunity to vet public submissions and offer their “interpretation.”

Then Ms. Polak entered the fray. She told the Osoyoos Times that it was Ms. Larson, not her, who chose the panel members. She also told the paper the panel members would not be privy to any information that might identify those tendering the public submissions they were reviewing.

The utter confusion about what was going on did nothing to quell the turmoil and anger in Ms. Larson’s riding, where suspicions about her motives run high. Fury over her handling of this matter was expected to dominate the annual general meeting of her Boundary-Similkameen riding association on Sunday. But then a funny thing happened: This week, Ms. Larson sent out a notice to her membership about the event that included a message saying her focus group was “on hold,” and would not be reviewing any public feedback the government received on its intentions paper.

End of story?

Unfortunately, not. Ms. Polak gave me a call from Paris on Tuesday to discuss this issue further. When we talked about Ms. Larson’s focus group, the minister spoke as if it was still going ahead. She told me the group would get “a summary of what we heard” and would not review individual submissions as was stated earlier. Again, this was contrary to what she said to the Osoyoos Times, which indicated the panel would see the submissions.

Near the end of our conversation, which touched on the government’s proposal, I returned to the role of the task force and began to mention that Ms. Larson had sent out a note to party members about its future. Before I could even finish my sentence, Ms. Polak said: “Yeah, that she’s going to put it on hold.”

Then she said: “I don’t know if she’ll still go ahead with it or keep it on hold or end it. I know she was concerned about the reaction in the community.”

Is the committee officially dead, I asked.

“That would be up to Linda. … I think it’s unfortunate because this is what MLAs do. They call people into their office and put together groups of people to talk about what’s going on.”

Your guess is now as good as mine about what the heck is really going on here.

My guess is Ms. Larson put the committee “on hold” ahead of her meeting to defuse some of the heat she was going to take over this entire, discredited fiasco. Given the absurd manner in which the government actors in this farce have reacted to the poor publicity it is generating, I’m confident that Ms. Larson will announce on Sunday that the task force is officially dead. It will not matter much.

In the end, she will get her way. In talking to Ms. Polak, there does not seem to be much appetite to create the big, bold national park most people in the area want. It sounds like the government will stick with its compromise plan, which is a pathetic substitute for what was envisioned. At which point people will have to ask: Is there any point?

I would have to say no.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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