To begin the ascent of Golden Hinde – the tallest peak on Vancouver Island in B.C.’s Strathcona Provincial Park – a climber first must spend two or three days on a trail that begins at a pullout near Myra Falls copper-lead-zinc mine.
For the few British Columbians who have ventured onto this part of the map, the incongruity of an active mine inside B.C.’s oldest provincial park is hard to overlook.
And it underscores the concerns that groups like the Wilderness Committee, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and Friends of Strathcona Park have over Bill 4, which allows for research in provincial parks – research they fear could pave the way for industrial projects such as pipelines and logging roads.
“This greases the skids for industry,” said Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee. “In the past, Kinder Morgan [NYSE:KMI] or other pipeline companies wouldn’t have been likely lawfully allowed to get a park use permit to do research.”
Bill 4 was implemented last year after the B.C. government acknowledged that the park use permits it had been granting might not stand up in court. It allows permits to be issued for activities that are otherwise not allowed in parks and protected areas – filming, for example, as well as surveying and geotechnical work. That data is often needed as a precursor to applying for a park boundary adjustment.
“We need the data to make a decision,” said B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak. “In some cases the data will actually prove that there shouldn’t be a boundary adjustment. That’s already happened once.”
She referred to a decision not to move ahead with a boundary adjustment application for a pipeline through Khutzeymateen Provincial Park. She added that about 4,000 hectares of parkland have been removed through boundary adjustments since 2004, with three million hectares added.
But there are a multitude of oil and gas pipelines proposed for B.C. and many would cut through provincial parks. A government document obtained in late 2013 via a freedom-of-information request revealed the B.C. government is considering boundary changes to more than 30 provincial parks.
Since the Trans Mountain pipeline was built in the 1950s, eight new provincial parks have been proclaimed along its corridor. Boundary adjustments will be needed to five of them to allow for an expansion of the pipeline. Those adjustments will, for the most part, be only temporary, while the pipeline is built.
Since Bill 4 was introduced, one provincial park – Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed – has already had its boundaries changed to make way for a pipeline to provide gas to Petronas’ Pacific NorthWest LNG project.
Meanwhile, near Chilliwack, an application is being heard to move the boundaries of Sasquatch Provincial Park on Harrison Lake, to allow a logging road that would give a contractor easier access to Crown timber for which Seabird Island First Nation has cutting rights.
Adjusting a park boundary requires public consultation and legislative changes. But because BC Parks is “totally strapped for cash,” the public consultation process has been put in the hands of the companies proposing the boundary changes, not BC Parks, said Peter Wood, director of terrestrial conservation for CPAWS.
“We’re a little bit concerned that it’s not going to be independent,” Wood said. “We’d like to see a more independent process.”
To date, most of the proposed boundary adjustments have been relatively minor. The 64 hectares deleted from Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park, for example, represents only 0.38% of the park’s total area, and pales in comparison with the 1,500 hectares that will be added to five provincial parks, as was recently announced by the B.C. government.
But it’s not the size of the exclusions that troubles the Wilderness Committee and CPAWS so much as the ease with which they may occur, given the tremendous amount of industrial activity expected to take place in B.C. in the coming years.
There is an expectation by the public that park boundaries, once established, should not be easy to move. But as Barlee points out, the amendment that deleted the 64 hectares from Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed park in November was done even though Petronas has not yet made a final investment decision on the Pacific NorthWest LNG project.
Polak said that, should the project not go ahead, the government’s practice is to put the land that was excluded from a park back in.
Wood fears it may become too routine to adjust park boundaries for things like logging roads, and cites Sasquatch Provincial Park as an example. The only alternative to accessing Crown timber would require negotiating a right-of-way from private property owners, which could get expensive.
“As long as it’s an option to open up a park, it will always be cheaper,” Wood said.
“And we’re seeing more and more proposals because it’s perceived as being an easy thing to do.”
Since “research” is not clearly defined in Bill 4, there are some concerns that it could include mineral exploration. The Friends of Strathcona Park are particularly wary. Since it was proclaimed in 1911, Strathcona Provincial Park has faced repeated attempts to open it up to mining and logging.
In 1965, the Myra Falls mine was approved through the creation of a Class B park (Strathcona-Westmin) within a Class A park.
In 1987, the Social Credit government tried to open other parts of Strathcona park to logging and mining, including the proposed Cream Silver mine, triggering a two-month blockade in 1988 by Friends of Strathcona Park.
The mine was halted and the NDP government, elected in 1991, declared Class A parks off limits to industrial activity. Marlene Smith, a founding director of Friends of Strathcona Park, believes Bill 4 could once again open it and other provincial parks to mineral exploration.
“I know from history that, in the next 10 or 20 years, unless we eliminate Bill 4, there will be mining exploration, either in Strathcona Park or elsewhere.”
Ultimately, any compromise on parks and protected areas for industry compromises B.C.’s brand, Barlee said.
“Our tourism industry in British Columbia is worth billions of dollars, and parks are a key component of what they showcase,” she said. “People associate British Columbia with magnificent nature and they associate British Columbia with an incredible park system, but we have a government that needs to recognize that.”
A 2011 study of national parks by the Outspan Group estimated the economic impact of national parks in B.C. to be $260 million in gross domestic product, $179 million in labour income and $24 million in tax revenue to the province. That doesn’t include the economic impact of provincial parks.