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Bill 4: What's Next For B.C. Park Amendment Act?

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Tens of thousands of people in B.C. have voiced their opposition to the recent passing of Bill 4, the Park Amendment Act. They are demanding its repeal because of fears around industrial development taking priority over the protection of our most significant areas of ecological diversity and natural beauty. I share many of their concerns.

The Park Amendment Act is a controversial piece of legislation that now allows the B.C. government to issue park use permits for activities that are not necessarily related to the mandate and purpose of our B.C. parks. The act allows for permits to be issued for two general categories: film production and research.

Previously, for a park use permit to be granted the applicant had to prove that the activity, for which they required the permit, was necessary for the preservation or maintenance of the recreational values of the park involved. Bill 4 changes this.

Now, the environment minister has the ability to issue permits that fall under the vague and undefined term "research" for any type of "feasibility study" for any kind of "prescribed project."

Without any limitations on what these studies or projects might entail, without any guidelines for how the studies or projects are to be assessed, and without defining the term "research," the act, in essence, can allow for a park use permit to be issued for virtually any type of activity.

The language is so vague as to be utterly meaningless. In theory, I could sip a beer while watching Hockey Night in Canada and qualify and call this research as part of a "feasibility study" under this act. Conversely, exploratory drilling could also fall into this category.

To be fair, there are regulations within the ministry that do define the term research, and there are guidelines over assessing what kind of activities are to be allowed in B.C. parks. However, they are not law -- they are regulations, and they can be changed by the ministry without any public consultation, public debate, or public scrutiny. The passing of Bill 4 means that the law protecting our parks has been weakened, while the ministry has increased its power and adopted a "trust us" approach.

Boundary adjustments

Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the underlying motivation for this bill is the fact that a number of B.C. parks are facing possible boundary adjustments in order to accommodate major industrial projects. Under a Freedom of Information request submitted last year, the Ministry of Environment released which parks stand to be affected by certain projects.

For example, the proposed Kinder Morgan Pipeline Expansion alone is expected to affect nine provincial parks and will require significant boundary adjustments to at least three of these parks. Furthermore, given the B.C. Liberals push for natural resource development, it's no surprise that so many people are suspicious of this act, and are worried that its purpose is merely to expedite industries application process.

Holding the government to account

When it was introduced, Bill 4 clearly did not have the social licence to proceed. The proposed changes caught most people by surprise, major environmental groups condemned it, and the bill was strongly opposed in the legislature.

Working with the official Opposition, I spoke against the bill, highlighting the concerning and vague language used as well as the lack of public consultation and support for instituting these changes. I proposed that before passing in the House, the bill should at least go to a committee review stage, in order to give the government time to build up the social license needed for this bill and to address the many concerns voiced. I also proposed amendments to the bill, including adding a definition for "research," as a way of trying to ensure that the Bill did not undermine the mandate and purpose of our parks. Unfortunately, these were defeated by the government.

What happened in the House

Despite being given opportunities to engage the public, and despite the public outcry, Bill 4 received royal assent on March 24, 2014. In defending the bill, Environment Minister Mary Polak stated that "the intention of this amendment is to provide the legal statutory certainty for the granting of research permits, commercial filming permits, that we have granting but have been advised that we do not have sufficient legal certainty in order to proceed as we have."

She assured the House that the 30-page Park Act still "contains all the guidance necessary to ensure that we don't have mining in our parks, that we don't have drilling for oil in our parks, that we don't have major industrial activities taking place in our parks". As British Columbians, our job is now to ensure the minister is true to her words.

Should we be concerned?

At roughly 14 million hectares, British Columbia has the third largest park system in North America (second only to the federal parks system of Canada and the U.S.). Over 14.4 per cent of the province is protected under the parks system, and over 90 per cent of British Columbians have visited a provincial park at some point in their lives and 60 per cent regularly visit at least one park each year.

Over the last 10 years our parks have undergone 44 boundary changes totaling roughly 811 hectares of lost park land. Although only eight of these changes were for proponent-based projects (industrial projects), the rest being largely administrative in nature, this number accounted for almost 70 per cent of the total area removed from our parks. Clearly, although they only account for a small number of total adjustments, the proponent-based industrial projects are the ones that have the biggest impact to our parks.

Equally important however is that this is a relatively small amount of land when it is taken in the context of 14 million hectares that are protected. In addition, just a few weeks ago that number was increased by 55,000 hectares.

The good news is that even though this bill does allow for research permits to be granted, possibly for major industrial projects, the park boundary would have to be changed before the project itself could be approved.

For our provincial parks, any boundary change has to come through the legislative assembly. And here, at least, there is an avenue for public attention and debate to occur over a park boundary change. You can be assured that I will be closely monitoring any future park boundary changes.

Bill 4 is a piece of legislation that is far too vague and gives too much power to the ministry. It clearly did not have the social licence needed and continues to face strong opposition. If used inappropriately the Bill has the potential to undermine the legislated protection of our parks.

For these reasons I opposed its passage in the house, and will do whatever I can to ensure it is not used to abuse the underlying purpose of our parks, as detailed in the BC Parks Mission Statement):

B.C. Parks is committed to serving British Columbians and their visitors by protecting and managing for future generations a wide variety of outstanding park lands which represent the best natural features and diverse wilderness environments of the province.

The next steps

I've tried to lay out a balanced and fact-based approach to this legislation. You can read why I opposed the bill here and what I said in a subsequent post here.

I hope that this post helps people to understand this issue, its complexity, and the importance that will now be placed on ensuring that every boundary adjustment is transparent and fully understood so that our park system remains protected and continues to serve the interests of British Columbians.

If you are concerned about this act, here are some options available to you:

1 - Sign a petition

Some groups have called for an appeal to this Bill. It can be found here.

2 - Write a letter

The minister has explained that this was essentially a housekeeping bill -- one that gave the ministry the legal authority to do what it had already been doing. However, my main criticism, aside from the use of incredibly vague language, is that it clearly did not have the required social license to move forward. If you share this concern I would encourage you to write to the minister about your views on the process, and how in the future the government needs to first engage in public consultation, before imposing such a controversial bill. Please provide me with a cc of your letter so that I can speak to your concerns in the future.