Canada is home to many ecologically diverse regions, ranging from temperate forests and arctic barrens, from extensive coastlines to vast planes. Across the country, many of these regions are protected as national parks and national park reserves. Parks like Banff National Park in the Rockies and Gros Morne National Park Reserve are renowned across Canada and the world for their natural beauty and recreation opportunities.
The proposed Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Reserve aims to protect a unique habitat and still provide recreational opportunity in the region. For many years, there has been a battle to establish a national park reserve in this area. In July 2019, the Syilx/Okanagan Nation signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal and provincial governments to take the next steps in creating the reserve in this area.
The grassland and shrub steppe are some of ecosystems found here. They are along the edge of the Great Basin Desert and both have significant ecological, geographic, cultural, and economic values. An objective of the national parks system has always been to establish a national park in all 39 unique ecosystems found in Canada. The park proposed in the South Okanagan-Similkameen area would be one of those 39 ecosystems. This area contains two of the four most endangered ecosystems in Canada — the dry bunchgrass grassland and open Ponderosa pine forest. These areas are often endangered and are also the least protected with huge expanses already used intensively for agriculture.
The South Okanagan-Similkameen is home to 11 per cent of the species at risk in Canada, including more than 30 federally and 60 provincially listed species. This region has one of the highest densities of listed species in Canada. Some of the listed species include the American badger, western rattle snake; and flammulated owl.
Communities within the area are divided on the proposal. There are strong arguments on both sides. Those against argue that the park would impose federal rules on locals and the area. They believe it would limit their traditional access to habitat.
Residents note that a park would likely bring more new tourism to the already busy area, adding pressure on local resources. There are also concerns about increased crime. Economically, cattle ranchers have questioned if grazing and land tenures would be impacted. Those opposed to the park are not against conservation, however they would rather it come from a different source than Parks Canada.
On the other side are the supporters of the proposed park reserve. Parks Canada is willing to work with ranchers to ensure grazing lands, tenures, water and other resources will continue to be available. The creation of a park would enhance the local economy from its fees. Locals can rest assured knowing that they will not be charged to access their homes or private properties and the public highways will not be tolled. The delicate ecosystem and multiple species at risk would be protected under federal national park law to mitigate the impending pressures of recreational and agricultural development.
Currently, the South Okanagan-Similkameen national park reserve stakeholders are negotiating a formal establishment agreement with federal and provincial governments. Regardless of the outcome, the focus should remain on protecting diversity in Canada’s flora and landscapes, maintaining ecosystems, and supporting wildlife and plant habitat while providing and supporting economic and recreational opportunities in communities.
Marty Ropego and Shelley Hackett are second year Recreation, Fish and Wildlife students at Castlegar’s Selkirk College.