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A new national park for the Okanagan?

June 4, 2010

The weather gods were on our side yesterday.  After a week of overcast skies, heavy rain and high winds, the sun shone and the June air actually felt warm.  Fortuitous indeed, for we were off on a helicopter tour of the south Okanagan and lower Similkameen valleys with a Global TV crew and local media reporters, promoting plans for a new national park in the area.  The tour had been organized by the local committee for the park proposal, as well as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Wilderness Committee.


View south over Kaleden and Skaha Lake to Vaseux Lake in the left distance.

My day began at the Eclipse Helicopters hangar in Penticton, where we climbed on board and were soon high above the hills south of town, looking down on the blue waters of Skaha Lake and the old volcanic terrain of the White Lake basin, dotted with small alkaline lakes.  One of these lakes, Mahoney, has the highest measured concentrations of hydrogen sulphide for any lake in the world, and has a remarkable layer of pink, porridgy sulphur bacteria that separates its oxygen-rich upper waters from the black, anaerobic layer below.  We cruised over the tremendous gneiss cliffs of Vaseux Lake and McIntyre Bluff, home to Peregrine Falcons, Golden Eagles, Canyon Wrens and Chukar, then swung southwest to follow the long, high ridge of Mount Kobau.  To the west were the high peaks of the north Cascades—Snowy Mountain, Chopaka and beyond the alpine ridges of the Cathedral Lakes.


Mahoney Lake, Sleeping Waters and Green Lake

The Similkameen River wound through rich bottomlands below us, on its way to the US border only a few miles away.  There are ridiculous plans to flood this valley by raising the dam at Shankers Bend just west of Oroville, WA, but I am confident that an intelligent appraisal of the project will result in all river-altering options being shelved.  We paralleled the US border to the highlands west of Osoyoos, where Kilpoola Lake nestled in the hills.  Like all small lakes in this area, it has shrunk dramatically in size over the last 20 years as drier climatic conditions and increased water use have drawn down the local water table.  Below us (though not visible from our altitude!) was the only Canadian population of the beautiful Lyall’s Mariposa Lily.  We landed at Osoyoos so that another group could board the helicopter for the trip back to Penticton; we boarded their van for a full-day trip of the land we had just flown over.


Spotted Lake, a unique alkaline wetland in the grasslands west of Osoyoos

I have long dreamed of a national park in the Okanagan Valley.  My parents were deeply involved with conservation efforts here in the 1960s and 1970s, including the formation of the Okanagan Similkameen Parks Society which was instrumental in the creation of Okanagan Mountain and Cathedral provincial parks, the Vaseux-Bighorn National Wildlife Area and the Haynes Lease Ecological Reserve among other accomplishments.  But I have seen too many other opportunities squandered over the years by governments lacking foresight.  In 1980 Parks Canada contracted me to write a report outlining some options to complete the parks system—the Dry Interior of British Columbia was the last ecozone in the country without a national park.  The south Okanagan and lower Similkameen valleys were one of the obvious focal points of this study, since they are the most diverse part of the region and contain most of the species at risk in the BC Interior.  In fact, the south Okanagan has long been touted as one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada, and analysis of species ranges from the federal Species at Risk Act show that it has by far the highest concentration of endangered species in the country.  So ironically, although the Dry Interior is the only region of Canada without a national park, if we were starting the parks system now it would be at the top of the priority list to get one.

Bitterroot blooming south of Kilpoola Lake

Absolutely nothing happened for over 20 years, then the idea was revived in 2002 by John and Mary Theberge, Senator Ross Fitzpatrick and others who took the idea to Prime Minister Chretien.  Within months, the federal and provincial governments signed an agreement to begin afeasibility study of the park proposal.  Local support for the park proposal has been high all along, with about 70% support.  A small number of local people—about 8% according to polls—are strongly opposed to the park, and have been very vocal in that cause.  The study process has been slowed and stalled recently by various issues, but there are indications recently that some of the issues that have bogged down the proposal may be close to resolution, and I’m more optimistic now that the right thing will be done.

But to see this park become reality, we will need more than the weather gods on our side.  It is important that many people voice their support for the park, and do so quickly.  You can send a message directly to Jim Prentice, the Minister of Environment, or fill in the online message form on the Wilderness Committee’s website.  Thank you!

Vaseux Lake with McIntyre Bluff in the distance

 PS:  the Global TV piece on the park proposal will be aired on the 6 p.m. news on Monday, June 7, 2010.


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