BC Environment Minister Mary Polak and MLA for Boundary-Similkameen Linda Larson were in Oliver Friday November 21 for two meetings with area stakeholders to discuss the importance of environmental protection and the development and management of the outdoor recreation-based tourism economy in the region.
To many, the meetings were considered the next chapter in the long-standing debate about the establishment of a National Park in the South Okanagan.
The gatherings held at Silver Sage Winery were to have a preliminary discussion about the various interests regarding issues of conservation, recreation management and tourism development in the region, and what actions provincial and local governments could take in collaboration with business and community organizations to further those objectives.
On hand to express their respective National Park interests were Doreen Olsen (S.O.S. National Park Network) and Chloe O’Loughlin and Peter Wood (Canadian Parks and Wilderness), Holly Plante and Brian Highley (South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce), Osoyoos Mayor Stu Wells, Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA) president Glenn Mandziuk, and Bryn White, program manager with the South Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Program (SOSCP).
“The continuing debate surrounding the national park reserve has highlighted the importance of environmental protection and the development and management of the outdoor recreation-based tourism economy in the region,” Environment Minister Mary Polak said in an email.
“I think it is important to fully explore the various interests in the region, and then begin to collaboratively identify possible solutions.” Osoyoos Mayor Stu Wells said that the meeting had a very positive tone and that he was impressed that the Minister went to the effort of bringing her staff to the area to find solutions to the ongoing dispute.
“To not have a resolution to this debate is disruptive to the riding, and I give her credit for trying to find common ground,” Wells said. “The Minister has no mandate to work on a park.” During their meeting, Wells and Mandziuk spoke to the tourism component of a National Park in the area, and how the ‘National Park brand’ would help attract tourists from overseas.
Plante and Highley focussed on job creation and tourist dollars as well, while the CPAWS delegates spoke to the urgency of protecting the area’s delicate ecosystem.
Earlier in the day, Polak met with the Grassland Park Review Coalition – a group vehemently opposed to the proposed National Park. Included in that meeting – members of the BC Wildlife Federation and local representatives of the ranching industry.
“I think it’s good that she came,” said spokesperson Greg Norton. “The Minister has taken and interest in this file and I was impressed with her knowledge of the issues.”
Norton stated that the group’s meeting with the Minister was productive. “Our discussion was open and frank. No commitments were made, she was just exploring,” Norton said.
Minister Polak stated that the meetings were merely the first step in a more comprehensive process of engagement. Earlier in the day Polak met with members of the Okanagan Nation Alliance including the Penticton Indian Band and the Osoyoos Indian Band.
Also in attendance at both meetings members of the Osoyoos, Oliver and Keremeos town councils and the Regional areas in between.
Polak indicated that many of the points made by all groups were the same – protection of the environment and biodiversity along with enhanced tourism opportunities with a respect for historical uses of the land.
She said she would look for a “made in BC solution” – something unique is possible that helps move us all towards a common goal. Untapped possibilities include native history tourism, eco-tourism, off season draws and more planned activities for vigorous youth sports activities.
Polak indicated that she would be talking to her ministry and cabinet colleagues and wouldn’t be able to do more until March at the earliest.
With files from www.osoyoosdailynews.com