The South Okanagan Grasslands: Preserving a national treasure

The South Okanagan Grasslands: Preserving a national treasure

Parks Canada has long had the goal of representing each of the distinct natural regions in the system of national parks. Until now, the B.C. Interior grasslands have been a key omission. That may be changing. (© Richard McGuire photo)

By Richard McGuire

The South Okanagan Grasslands have long been a glaring omission in Parks Canada’s efforts to represent each of Canada’s significant natural regions in a national park.

The region is home to 56 federally listed species at risk including plants and animals found nowhere else in Canada.

It was 1979 when a young biology graduate named Richard Cannings took a contract job with Parks Canada to research locations in the dry B.C. interior for a park to represent this missing region.

It was obvious to him that the South Okanagan, one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada, had features missing from other locations on the interior plateau.

Times change and today Cannings is the NDP Member of Parliament representing South Okanagan-West Kootenay in Ottawa.

It may, however, be another poltical conjuncture that leads to fulfilment of this long-sought dream.

A new NDP provincial government and a Liberal federal government announced plans in late October to move forward jointly with local First Nations to make a national park reserve in the South Okanagan a reality.

It wasn’t the first time governments in Victoria and Ottawa agreed to move forward with a national park reserve.

In October 2003, the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding to study the feasibility of establishing this park.

An overly ambitious size for the project and mishandled relations with the community soured many local residents on the idea – especially those who saw it, rightly or wrongly, as a threat to activities such as ranching, hunting and use of off-road vehicles.

The draft study found a scaled-down park feasible, but in January 2011, the B.C. Liberal cabinet got cold feet and put an end to it. The idea remained on ice until 2015, when the reluctant provincial government bowed to pressure and began considering a still smaller park area.

October’s announcement only restarts a process that may yet preserve this national treasure. This time, if they don’t blow it, the political stars just may be aligned.

Mount Kobau is the crown jewel of the South Okanagan Grasslands. Rising to 1,873 metres (6,145 feet), its ecology changes as you climb. Once proposed for an observatory, it offers clear skies for stargazers and its slopes provide views of the valley below, including Spotted Lake. (© Richard McGuire photo)
Blue Lake is one of several lakes in the southern area, surrounded by trees. There is a rapid transition between forests and grasslands. (© Richard McGuire photo)
In springtime, yellow Arrowleaf Balsamroot dots the grasslands. (© Richard McGuire photo)