When the B.C. government invited feedback to its proposed plan to set aside some land in the south Okanagan for a national reserve, park proponents were hopeful the move signalled Environment Minister Mary Polak was open to hearing the concerns of those who wanted much more territory protected.
And open, too, to reconsidering her position based on the feedback she received.
Now, the entire review process has been tainted and thrown into disrepute by the actions of local Liberal MLA Linda Larson, who is steadfastly against having a national park. Ms. Larson, with Ms. Polak's blessing, has set up an anonymous five-person committee to vet the more than 400 submissions that the government received.
Ms. Larson has defended the initiative, saying the ad hoc group's makeup is secret because she doesn't want the members being harassed. She insists the team has representatives from both sides of the controversial park plan and says its role is to "summarize" the public responses the government received for the ministry. As for concerns that she could have stacked the group with anti-park types, Ms. Larson says her picks were scrutinized and approved by Ms. Polak's office.
For her part, Ms. Polak has attempted to play down the committee's role in the entire process. The minister said Ms. Larson's group doesn't carry any more or less weight than anybody else's input. She said her staff is initiating its own review of the submissions and all the committee is doing is providing additional perspective.
It's easy for Ms. Polak to say the committee participants are no different than members of the public who are interested in the fate of this park – except they get to look at, and provide commentary on, the responses the government received. That doesn't seem to be an accommodation being made to everyone.
As someone who believes a large national park in the south Okanagan would be of immense benefit to the region, I wouldn't mind taking a look at all the public submissions myself. And I wouldn't mind seeing how this anonymous five-member committee chose to summarize them for the ministry.
After all, that only seems fair if this is going to be the open, transparent process that Ms. Polak promised.
If the committee is truly not going to have any more influence on the final outcome of this park decision than any member of the public, then what is the point of its input? The fact that someone who is adamantly opposed to the park got to recommend the composition of this group makes me, and others, deeply suspicious. I mean, it's absurd that Ms. Polak can't see how poor the optics are here. Especially, if the government sticks to its current proposal that excludes a major section of land that many agree needs to be central to any national-park endeavour.
The government has a chance to do something that is truly significant. We are talking about a territory that represents one of the most important ecosystems in the world. Nearly 60 federally listed endangered species call the region home; that's 11 per cent of all the threatened species in the country. The province pulled out of negotiations with Ottawa to make the area a national park in 2011 under pressure from a tiny but vocal group of ranchers and hunters (not to mention Liberal Party supporters) who feel the proposal would threaten their way of life.
The province's national-park plan excludes a large, critically important area around Mount Kobau, which offers stunning vistas of the Similkameen and Okanagan Valley and is home to many of the species just mentioned. This plan has the effect of dividing the proposed park into two tiny, separate areas, which would interrupt the species corridor that is imagined. It's far easier, from a tourism perspective, to market one, bold, strong region as a park, as opposed to two smallish pieces that aren't even connected. The larger park plan is backed by almost everyone in the area outside the aforementioned group of hunters and ranchers.
Interestingly, a large swath of the land that the province is proposing to exclude is owned or tenured by one rancher, Ace Elkink, who is prepared to sell his property if it's going to be part of a national park.
As I say, the B.C. government has an opportunity to do something special here, something a majority of the public in the area wants. Ignoring that fact would be a terrible mistake. And making that decision after allowing an anti-park MLA to bring together a secret group to vet the public submissions would be unimaginable.
The province needs Ms. Polak's clear leadership on this issue now. She needs to understand how badly things look at the moment.