Peter Wood: Is B.C.’s Park Act in peril?

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      On February 13, the province introduced legislation that could weaken the Park Act significantly, allowing for greater impacts in B.C.’s parks to occur. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society takes any changes to this act very seriously, as it underpins the integrity of our entire provincial protected area network.

      According to Bill 4, the revised act would allow the minister of environment to issue park use permits for feasibility studies relating to the "location, design, construction, use, maintenance, improvement or deactivation" of roads, pipelines, transmission lines, telecommunications infrastructure, and other projects. This is a clear threat to the integrity of our protected areas system, as it essentially writes a blank cheque to industry to consider opening up any given protected area for industrial use.

      Another of the main changes is that the act would no longer prohibit impacts in parks less than 2,023 hectares in size. That’s almost the size of Cypress Bowl Provincial Park, or five times the size of Stanley Park. What the government must understand is that these protected areas, no matter what the size, form part of a well-thought out pattern of land use designations, often the result of long multi-stakeholder processes that achieved a balance between a diversity of interests. Other parks were established following decades-long battles to protect wilderness and wildlife from serious harm, for the benefit of everyone. They are designed to protect unique features, sensitive species, and irreplaceable values. To open up these parks is to open up these battles, and will result in serious uncertainty regarding land use planning in the province. Our province will become a very risky place to invest in.

      We first came aware of possible changes to the act in June 2013, when a Ministry of Environment document surfaced that appeared to take stock of existing protected area designations and applicable legislation, and explained what would be required to modify these designations (this was not made available publicly). At the time, Minister Mary Polak reassured the public that this was not the case, and that the document was “stating the rules as they are and making them clear to the proponents”. As it turns out, this foreshadowed the current legislative changes being proposed.

      These changes threaten to undermine the entire concept of a park and render it a meaningless designation—an area “protected” only until you want to exploit it. Under the Convention on Biodiversity, Canada has committed to increasing its protected areas to 17 percent from its current 10 percent. If anything, the province should be exploring ways in which it can contribute to meeting our international commitment, not weakening it. In November 2014, the World Parks Congress will be held in Syndey, Australia. It would be a shame to have to report that B.C., once a global leader in the establishment of parks, is now taking decisive steps to weaken this network.

      We call upon the B.C. government to reconsider these changes and to respect the integrity of the Park Act and the protected areas that it defends. We urge our members and the public to write the minister and let her know your views on these proposed changes.