A proposed national park that could result in the protection of nearly 300 square kilometres in the South Okanagan Valley, home to some of the country’s most endangered species, is a step closer to reality as the federal and B.C. governments and two First Nations have agreed to begin negotiations.

The two levels of government as well as the Osoyoos Indian Band and Lower Similkameen Indian Band are set to announce Tuesday they have agreed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that sets out the boundaries for the park and the terms of the subsequent negotiations that will need to take place.

“This is a huge moment,” federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in an interview. “It’s taken almost 20 years to get this critical piece achieved, which is why it’s so important.”

The proposed park has been the subject of an often-emotional debate that has pitted ranchers and hunters against those who believe the surrounding ecosystem needs to be protected and that a national park could become a tourist draw that could benefit local businesses.

“There is still a process that we need to get through,” said Ms. McKenna, who is scheduled to be at the announcement in Osoyoos. “We still have to negotiate an establishment agreement that includes a land transfer arrangement between the province and Ottawa and the Okanagan First Nations.

“No land will be expropriated. We will purchase private land through a willing seller, willing buyer basis. I’d like to see that part take a year, but that might be ambitious. More likely it will take two, but by then we hope to be able to declare the park a reality.”

It could take years, however, before Parks Canada staff administer the park on a daily basis.

The working boundary of the proposed national park reserve (which includes areas subject to land claims the courts have yet to deal with) encompasses roughly 273 square kilometres in the region around Mount Kobau, Spotted Lake and Kilpoola and includes the South Okanagan Grasslands Provincial Protected Areas.

The shrub steppe ecosystem includes the only pockets of semi-arid desert in the country. It is home to more than 30 species on the federal government’s at-risk list, including birds, mammals and plants not found anywhere else in Canada. Eleven per cent of the threatened species in the country exist here, including the flammulated owl and the Great Basin spadefoot toad. There are more than 200 species of birds in the valley, more than 700 species of wildflowers and 200 species of grasses.

Hunters and ranchers have led an often vocal opposition, upset that many of the activities they enjoy in the area would be off limits if the park becomes reality. All-terrain vehicles would no longer be allowed, as well as hunting. The highways in and around Osoyoos, Oliver and Penticton are populated with huge signs that read, “No National Park.”

An earlier MOU signed by Ottawa and the B.C. government in the late 2000s was ripped up when Christy Clark became premier in 2011. But the park became a priority once again when the New Democratic Party ascended to power in 2017.

Doreen Olson, co-ordinator of the South Okanagan National Park Network and a leading advocate of the park’s creation, said she’s relieved a new MOU is being signed.

“Our group has been working on this for a very long time with plenty of ups and downs,” Ms. Olson said in an interview. “I think we have had six federal ministers of the environment over that time. Now we’ll see the boundaries and the formal agreements required to bring the national park reserve to fruition.”

Those pressing for the park were inspired to fight even harder for its creation after the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services panel recently published a study that said one million of the planet’s eight million species are threatened with extinction as a result of population growth that is encroaching on habitat. The report also cited climate change and pollution as factors.

The Globe and Mail, July 2, 2019