The importance of establishing a national park in the South Okanagan-Similkameen has been realized by conservationists and professionals for many decades. However, it has been a long and challenging journey towards creating a national park.
Our story begins in 2002, when Prime Minister Chretien was informed about the need for significant conservation efforts to be carried out in the South Okanagan-Similkameen. After experiencing this enchanting ecosystems in this region in person, Prime Minister Chretien became aware of the immeasurable value it holds to Canada and the threat of encroaching human development in the region.
A few months later in Ottawa, the issue of conserving the South Okanagan-Similkameen ecosystem was spotlighted and a study into assessing the feasibility of establishing a national park was commenced by Parks Canada. After this study was completed, the Provincial Government of British Columbia and the Government of Canada entered into a memorandum of understanding that the establishment of a national park is a priority.
A year into this movement, the original park concept (encompassing over 600 square kilometers of diverse and pristine landscapes) was presented to the communities of the South Okanagan-Similkameen. There were over 900 attendees and more than 200 people surveyed. The response from certain communities was that the proposed park was “too big too soon”.
In 2006, after three years of consultations and revisions to the original proposed park area, an adjusted and smaller park concept was presented to the communities of the South Okanagan-Similkameen. Similarly to years before, there was a large amount of public interest, with 900 people attending the meeting and about 250 people surveyed. The revisions paid off this round, and the public supported the much smaller (one-third of it’s original size) and revised park concept.
In order to gain a greater knowledge of public opinion, Parks Canada carried out a phone survey of over 770 participants, showing that the national park supporters vastly outnumbered the opposition by approximately 2:1.
In 2008, over 20,000 people whom supported the park signed a petition that was presented to Parliament and BC Legislature. The South Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Program’s Species at Risk Public Opinion Poll, surveying 300 residents, showed strong support for this land to be protected. The Similkameen Valley Planning Society’s public opinion poll also found supportive feedback, finding that only 24% of Similkameen citizens were actually opposed. This opposition was found to primarily occur in the southern areas of the region.
After 8 years of waiting, the federal-provincial National Park Feasibility Study Report was released, clearly determining that a national park is feasible and confirms that current businesses and ranchers within the park concept area will be able to continue as usual and confirms that all outstanding issues can be resolved. It recommended that federal-provincial national park negotiations begin immediately.
After this, further public polls were carried out, including the McAllister Opinion Research Public Opinion Poll sampling 405 residents. The results were similar as they were years before: 63% supported the national park with 26% in opposition.
In 2011, there was a high amount of public support and no park yet established. So, 233 scientists wrote to the Province supporting the protection of the area for scientific reasons. The same year, the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association also pointed out that a 10-year Regional Plan, with 90 agencies and all local First Nations communities, support the creation of the national park.
A three-year Okanagan Nation Alliance feasibility study was released in 2013 and indicated that the national park was feasible. The ONA, including all First Nation communities in the region, unanimously agree on supporting the national park.
Due to the overwhelming support for the park, MP Alex Atamanenko & MLA Dan Ashton formally requested that the Province re-engage in discussions with the Government of Canada and ensure that ranchers & HNZ are given long term security.
In early 2015 a new public opinion poll was carried out and revealed that local support for the park concept was higher than it had ever been, having grown to 3 to 1 in support of the park.
More recently, in August 2015, the provincial government announced a major breakthrough in the campaign to protect the region – a new conservation framework for the South Okanagan region was proposed that included two areas being considered for national park status. The new proposal does not include the entirety of the concept area considered in the Parks Canada feasibility study, and is much smaller than what the Okanagan Nation Alliance recommended for protection. The government organized a public consultation on this proposal from August to October 2015, and it is expected the results of this feedback process will be available in Spring/Summer 2016. In January 2017 the provincial government committed to reengage with Parks Canada and the Okanagan Nation Alliance on the creation of a National Park Reserve in the South Okanagan-Similkameen.
Meanwhile, habitat fragmentation, over-grazing, urban development and unregulated recreation are just some of the issues causing irreplaceable changes to this environment.
As Canadians, we pride ourselves on world-class parks and natural areas that represent a wide range of ecosystems – both for human enjoyment and ecological preservation. We are continuing to gain public support and inspire others to become aware of our fragile ecosystems and the importance of preserving them, gathering further pubic support for the national park concept.