Province left feds dangling 11 months after secretly killing park
Planning was underway in early 2011 for a joint celebration of the signing of a national park agreement between Parks Canada, British Columbia and local First Nations.
The agreement would have led to a new national park reserve in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen (SOLS), protecting an area of temperate grasslands that is unique in Canada and is a missing link in Parks Canada’s goal of representing each of Canada’s natural regions in its parks network.
Parks Canada was considering whether to hold the event on June, 21, 2011, National Aboriginal Day, or whether to hold it on July 15, 2011, British Columbia Parks Day.
The timing was auspicious.
In 2011, BC Parks was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its first park, Strathcona, in 1911. Parks Canada, the same year, was celebrating its 100th anniversary as the world’s first national park service.
Suddenly, as the result of a secret decision by the B.C. Liberal government’s cabinet, the planning came to a crashing halt.
Parks Canada was left dangling for nearly a year before B.C. announced its decision not to proceed with the national park.
The planning of the park announcement is just one detail contained in 126 pages of Parks Canada documents the Osoyoos Times obtained under federal Access to Information laws. Some of the documents are heavily redacted or censored.
The documents portray in detail the planning by Parks Canada officials as they sought to balance and address the concerns of sometimes competing interests, including ranchers, First Nations, municipalities, regional governments, environmental groups and recreational users.
B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak often refers to a national park as a “blunt instrument,” suggesting it can’t be adapted to unique local needs.
The documents, however, show that on the contrary, Parks Canada was prepared to create a unique model in SOLS, different from all other national parks, in order to address local concerns.
The accommodation of ranchers, allowing ranching to continue, while protecting the most environmentally sensitive areas, would be unique in Canada and completely unlike the grazing permitted in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, currently the only national park that allows cattle grazing.
“The new approach recognizes fundamental differences between the Grassland (sic) National Park approach and what is required in British Columbia,” says a Draft Internal Engagement Plan dated Sept. 20, 2011. “The ranching community in B.C. will not support a model where existing provincial grazing tenures are extinguished and grazing rights replaced through a grazing permit system.”
Instead, Parks Canada officials preferred an option to continue grazing by incorporating B.C. grazing laws and regulations into Parks Canada’s regulations through a process known as “incorporation by reference.”
“As nearly 100 per cent of the Crown lands and protected areas in the proposed concept area are under tenure, support from the Province of British Columbia and ranchers will be, in part, based on ensuring certainty and stability to local ranching operations,” the report continues.
The September 2011 date of this document, and a subsequent revision dated Nov. 4, 2011, show that Parks Canada was continuing to work on park planning throughout 2011, unaware that the provincial cabinet in B.C. had decided in January 2011 not to proceed.
A Parks Canada spokesperson said that the federal agency was only officially informed of the B.C. government’s decision in December 2011.
The B.C. government, however, confirmed in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the Osoyoos Times that cabinet’s decision to withdraw from talks was made in January 2011.
“Cabinet made the decision in January 2011 and the decision went out to stakeholders and the public early in 2012,” an official with Information Access Operations stated in response to a request for provincial documents.
Asked to double check this date was in fact true, the information access analyst replied: “The program area has advised that according to an email from the executive director, the decision was made in January 2011.”
The executive director of the BC Parks Planning and Management Branch at the time was Brian Bawtinheimer, but a further FOI request for his emails on the subject at the time came up empty.
“Although a thorough search was conducted, no records were located in response to your request,” the provincial government said.
The January 2011 date for the government’s decision is, however, confirmed in a briefing note prepared for Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson in November 2013 by Ministry of Environment officials, which was obtained by the Osoyoos Times.
The B.C. cabinet’s decision in January 2011 coincided with the completion of a joint Canada-B.C. feasibility study that was recommended to the B.C. cabinet by Cairine MacDonald, B.C. deputy minister of the environment, and Ron Hallman, director general of national parks at Parks Canada.
That study reported the conclusion of the Canada-B.C. Steering Committee, on which MacDonald and Hallman were represented, “that a national park reserve is feasible.”
The study urged a prompt response from cabinet.
“The Steering Committee recognizes the importance of a timely decision due to rapid land use change in this area, and growing requests for ‘certainty’ by key stakeholders, in particular the ranching community.”
Despite the deputy minister’s recommendation and then B.C. Environment Minister Murray Coell’s support for the park, cabinet rejected the study and the provincial government refused to release it to the public until they were forced to in response to an FOI request by the provincial NDP.
Meanwhile, senior federal and provincial officials on the joint steering committee held an awkward conference call on Feb. 11, 2011.
Parks Canada was not informed that the B.C. cabinet had rejected the park, but they were told there were “no decisions being made.”
Parks Canada communications officials were told to make their communications “low key” and “reactive (as if we are in election mode…).”
The words “park concept” and “as well as local communities” were ordered to be struck from messaging.
“No, sorry, in this time of holding, we need to minimize our messages,” wrote Kevin McNamee, director of parks establishment at Parks Canada in an email to Debby Funk, communications manager, dated Feb. 21, 2011.
“Please drop the concept part and local communities. If we include those messages at this time, then we will have to explain the concept and the latter may result in local communities asking us to come forward,” McNamee continued.
Nonetheless, Parks Canada officials observed, “There is mounting pressure from communities, stakeholders and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) for communication on the status of the project.”
Draft communication messaging triumphantly announcing an agreement was hastily revised to say: “Parks Canada continues to work with the Government of British Columbia to assess the feasibility of a national park reserve in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen. No decisions have been made at this time.”
Shortly after the B.C. cabinet’s decision, Christy Clark was elected by B.C. Liberals as the party’s new leader on Feb. 26, 2011. Two weeks later, on March 14, she was sworn in as premier.
That same day, B.C. Environment Minister Coell was shuffled out of cabinet and replaced by Terry Lake.
Less than two weeks later, on March 26, a federal election was called and Parks Canada’s public communication, already “low key,” came to a halt.
Parks Canada continued throughout 2011 to hold internal discussions of land acquisition, solutions to ranchers’ concerns and addressing the interests of First Nations.
For the B.C. government, however, discussions ceased.
The Osoyoos Times submitted an FOI request for agendas of any meetings by the province to consult stakeholder groups about the proposed park from the beginning to the end of 2011.
“Although a thorough search was conducted, no records were located in response to your request,” was the province’s response.
Read the documents for yourself (PDF)
(Document names here are not their official titles)
- SOLS Draft Communication and Engagement Plan
- SOLS Draft Engagement Plan 1
- SOLS Draft Engagement Plan 2
- SOLS Draft Engagement Plan 3
- SOLS Interim Work Plan
- SOLS Planning Meeting and Agenda
- SOLS Private Land Assessment for Acquisition – part 1
- SOLS Private Land Assessment for Acquisition – part 2
Do you speak Governmentese?
Few sectors are as fond of using acronyms as government. Here are a few of the more common ones you’ll find in these documents:
AUM – animal unit month
CNPA – Canada National Parks Act
EI – ecological integrity
FN – First Nations
GIS – geographic information system (a computer-based mapping technique)
HA – hectare
LSIB – Lower Similkameen Indian Band
MOU – memorandum of understanding
NGO – non-governmental organization
NPR – national park reserve
OIB – Osoyoos Indian Band
ONA – Okanagan Nation Alliance
PCA – Parks Canada Agency
RUP – range use plan
SAR – species at risk
SOLS – South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen
SOSCP – South Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Program