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The seeds of an Okanagan national park sprout again

As a young cabinet minister in the late 1960s, Jean Chrétien went for a hike on the West Coast trail, developing a love for British Columbia's wilderness that 40 years later is still having reverberations. Now world-famous, and protected by national park boundaries, the trail was then just a muddy, root-tangled track along a rugged shoreline, with pounding waves below and towering old-growth trees above. But it entranced Mr. Chrétien, and he later moved to protect the area.

"I was so awestruck by the beauty of the land and the beauty of the sea that I was convinced we should create Pacific Rim National Park Reserve – and in 1970, I invited Princess Anne to dedicate the park," Mr. Chrétien recalled in 2003, when, as prime minister, he returned to B.C., intent on saving another, very different piece of wilderness. On that visit, 10 years ago, Mr. Chrétien signed a memorandum of understanding with Gordon Campbell, then B.C.'s premier, calling for the creation of a new national park in the stunning desert landscape of the South Okanagan.

"Nature is part of our Canadian identity, part of our Canadian soul," Mr. Chrétien said at the signing ceremony. "We need to show reverence for nature. We need to be trustees of nature. With this announcement, we are doing both."

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Well, not quite.

A decade later, Mr. Chrétien's dream of an Okanagan national park, to protect the pine forests and natural grasslands near Keremeos and Osoyoos, remains unfulfilled.

There was delay after delay, in a large part because timid B.C. politicians were cowed by the opposition of area ranchers and by noisy all-terrain vehicle clubs. And the deal just never got done.

In 2012, with Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Campbell both gone from the political scene, the province of B.C. announced that the proposed park was off the table, because of a lack of public support.

A poll showed that 39 per cent of local residents like the idea, while 19 per cent were opposed. Most of the rest, 41 per cent, were undecided.

B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said that with that kind of "tepid" support, his government was no longer interested in discussing a national park with Ottawa. But dreams of saving the wilderness don't die easily in Canada, especially in B.C., where the raw beauty of the landscape is powerful enough to move prime ministers.

Environmental groups have continued to lobby for creation of the park, but Parks Canada has backed off, stating on its website that "it cannot proceed without the support of the government of British Columbia."

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On Tuesday, the issue will be revived, when the four Indian bands that make up the Okanagan Nation Alliance hold a press conference to announce the results of a year-long feasibility study into the park proposal.

The bands aren't commenting in advance, but it is expected they will endorse a national park.

"Wow," Osoyoos Mayor Stu Wells said when he was told about the planned press conference.

He knows native leaders in the Okanagan have been looking hard at the park proposal, and he's convinced they'll see what he sees – a huge economic opportunity, and a chance to save a remarkable piece of B.C. wilderness.

"I would think it's going to be favourable towards creation of the park," he said. "That would be great. Oh, that would be the turning point."

Ingrid Jarrett, chair of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association agreed.

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"That would be very, very important," she said.

Ms. Jarrett said native bands are embracing tourism opportunities in the region and she thinks a national park that respects the historical use of the lands by first nations and ranchers will win broad support.

"And we need a national park," she said. "The statistics will show it will be an international, national and regional tourism driver."

With support growing in the Okanagan, it's likely B.C. politicians will finally realize that Mr. Chrétien was right, a decade ago, when he recognized the dwindling wilderness in the South Okanagan is well worth saving.

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