Feasibility Assessment (January 2011) Canada-British Columbia Steering Committee

Background

In 2002, representatives of the Okanagan Nation Alliance and community members were the first proponents for protecting the area around the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected Area as a national park reserve. In 2003, the governments of Canada and British Columbia signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on assessing the feasibility of establishing a national park reserve in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen region.

The Canada-British Columbia Steering Committee established a working group, comprised of representatives from the Government of British Columbia (Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Forests and Ministry of Agriculture and Lands) and Parks Canada, to facilitate implementation, coordination, and communication of the feasibility assessment process.

The South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen is part of the Interior Dry Plateau natural region of Canada, and one of 39 regions identified by Parks Canada as a distinctive component of the national landscape. This region is not yet represented in Canada’s system of national parks. Located in the extreme south of the Interior Dry Plateau where the northern edge of the Great Basin reaches into British Columbia, the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen is one of Canada’s richest areas of biodiversity. From both national and provincial perspectives, this is an area of high conservation value and an excellent candidate area for Parks Canada to represent this natural region.

The feasibility assessment incorporated an iterative process of consultations, design, evaluation, and refinement of a park concept. Feedback from First Nations, local communities, and stakeholders was sought in order to develop a park concept which fits within the regional context. In 2006, feedback on the draft park concept was gathered from open houses, forums, workshops and meetings. Further discussions assisted Parks Canada and the Working Group in better understanding where common interests from First Nations, communities, the public, and stakeholders could be combined to build a common vision.

Revisions were made and a new 2010 park concept was completed (Figure 4).

Why a national park in the South Okanagan?

  • Enhance protection of British Columbia’s temperate grassland ecosystems – landscapes that are critically endangered globally.
  • Consolidate and connect the existing network of provincial and national protected areas – through the purchase of private lands and through partnerships with surrounding landowners and users.
  • Build strong and meaningful relationships with the Okanagan Nation.
  • Establish partnerships with the Okanagan Nation and local communities to collaborate on conservation, management and education – building upon traditional local ecological knowledge.
  • Facilitate collaboration between scientific researchers, ranchers, range professionals and the Okanagan Nation to achieve ecological management objectives and protect key “at risk” habitats within the national park reserve and to improve current range conditions in surrounding grasslands and to manage wildlands in rural-urban transition areas.
  • Make it easy for people from the Southern Interior and other Canadians to visit the park for an hour, a day or longer – by offering a wide range of first class opportunities to experience and connect with this nationally significant natural and cultural heritage area.
  • Raise the profile of the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen as a tourism destination by adding new visitor experience opportunities to the existing marketing mix, encouraging investment in the local tourism infrastructure and creating strategic benefits for the tourism industry.

Concept

The South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen is characterized by a relatively dry, warm climate. The vegetation is predominantly grassland and shrub-steppe at lower elevations with coniferous parkland at higher elevations. This area is also recognized for its nationally significant wetlands and riparian areas that provide essential habitat to birds (Important Bird Areas), amphibians and reptiles. The South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen is one of Canada’s richest areas of natural biodiversity and has a large number of species and habitats at risk. Results from a Parks Canada conservation target analysis suggest that the 2010 Park Concept (Figure 4) adequately represents key biogeoclimatic zones, as well as priority habitats and special features. It represents the unique elements of biodiversity found in this region—and nowhere else in Canada. In addition, there are fifty-six federally-listed species at risk known to occur in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen and most are found within the park concept area. The 2010 park concept focuses on protection of the lower elevation grasslands where species diversity is highest and most at risk.

The 2010 Park Concept includes two distinct areas, the Northern Component and the South Okanagan Grasslands Component. The proposed boundary of the park reserve includes approximately 284 square kilometres of provincial parks and protected areas, multi-use Crown Lands, and private lands (private lands would be secured on a willing seller and willing buyer basis.) Derived from the 2006 draft park concept, changes to reduce the size of the park concept were made in response to First Nations, key stakeholders, and some members of the public who expressed concerns that the original plan was “too much, too fast.”

Northern Component highlights include:

  • 10 square kilometres of aquatic habitats, the rare ‘pocket desert’ habitat (antelope brush), species at risk, a concentration of cultural sites and a signature view
  • Cooperative management with the Canadian Wildlife Service at Vaseux Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary and Bighorn National Wildlife Area
  • Partnerships in adjacent areas including White Lake and Vaseux protected areas, National Research Council lands, and other conservation lands
  • Accessible nature education and interpretation values with excellent day use opportunities
  • Potential interpretive theme: ‘Snakes and Lakes’

South Okanagan Grasslands Component highlights include:

  • Grasslands, ponderosa pine parklands, interior Douglas fir forests and a scenic upland joining the Similkameen and Okanagan valleys
  • Approximately 93 square kilometres of provincial protected area in 5 parcels; 83 square kilometres of multi-use Crown land; 98 square kilometres of private land
  • Consolidation of fragmented protected areas; provide opportunities for road-accessible day use, trails, viewpoints, star gazing, interpretation
  • Experience elevation gradient spanning five ecosystems
  • Receive and orient visitors, and interpret the region at existing or new visitor centres (outside the park reserve)
  • Integrate an extensive trail system within the proposed park with existing community roads and trails
  • Potential interpretive theme: ‘From the Desert to the Stars’.

These two components make an important contribution towards Parks Canada’s national goals of representation of this natural region. The grasslands and other associated ecosystems are areas rich in biodiversity, and are home to many species. The diverse landscapes provide unique educational and visitor opportunities to experience one of the driest, hottest and most threatened ecosystems in Canada.

Figure 4

South Okanagan Grasslands Component

Conclusion

  1. A national park reserve is feasible;
  2. The proposed park reserve boundary contained herein be approved at a conceptual level;
  3. The governments of Canada and British Columbia sign a Memorandum of Understanding respecting the establishment of a national park reserve in the South Okanagan-Similkameen; and
  4. Parks Canada continue to work with the Okanagan Nation Alliance and affected bands to achieve shared understandings regarding the protection and future management of the park proposal area.

In 2011, officials with the governments of Canada and British Columbia concluded that a 284-square-kilometre national park reserve was feasible and recommended that work continue with the Okanagan First Nation. However, the B.C. Government determined that it was not ready to proceed with a national park reserve at that time.

Moving forward

From a Parks Canada perspective, when re-engaging on the proposal, some of the aspects to be addressed include:

  • agreeing on a final park boundary;
  • defining a cooperative management governance approach with the Okanagan Nation Alliance;
  • continuation of grazing activities on some park lands;
  • tourism development opportunities;
  • future of land-use activities that are incompatible with a national park reserve;
  • potential land acquisition;
  • reassuring the local helicopter company that its business would not be threatened by the park; and
  • securing the necessary federal funding to undertake the necessary work to achieve an agreement as well as establish, develop and operate the national park reserve.