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B.C. says park policy offers protection while others fear development

VICTORIA — British Columbia's Environment Ministry is poised to introduce a new policy it says will ensure the province's parks are off limits to industrial activities, but an environmental group fears the plan will open the gates to pipelines and other development projects.

The Ministry of Environment is expected to release its policy on issuing permits for research and information gathering within provincial parks on Friday.

Last year's Park Amendment Act touched off a massive petition campaign from B.C. environmental groups that said the Liberal government was enacting legislation that opened the door to industrial development, including oil and gas pipelines, within parks and protected areas.

More than 167,000 people signed a petition calling on the government to repeal the Park Amendment Act, which became law in March 2014.

"Protecting our natural spaces is a priority," said Environment Minister Mary Polak in a written statement. "This policy provides more clarity around how research and information-gathering activities will be undertaken in B.C.'s parks and protected areas, which allows us to make informed decisions."

A ministry statement said the new policy improves clarity, certainty and authority when issuing permits authorizing activities related to research and investigation in parks. The statement said B.C. parks remain off limits to new industrial activity, but the research permits could play a role in decisions relating to requests to adjust park boundaries.

"Research can be purely for academic purposes, park and protected area management or as part of an environmental assessment or feasibility study," said the ministry statement.

But Wilderness Committee policy director Gwen Barlee said the new permit policy and the amended Park Act gives the government more powers to clear the way for industrial activity in provincial parks. She said parks were created to protect areas from industrial development but that the door has now been opened.

"To say we want to loosen those protections makes parks really vulnerable to industrial development," she said. "And that just defeats the very purpose of why they were created."

Barlee said Polak told the legislature last year during debate over the Park Act that the government required statutory approval to give the province more authority to grant or deny park permit applications.

The Environment Ministry statement said land can be removed from a B.C. park, but that requires an application for a boundary adjustment.

"Before any proposed park boundary adjustment is considered, a very rigorous exercise must be undertaken requiring public, First Nations and local community consultation, a review of alternatives to avoid the park and the completion of environmental assessments," said the statement.

It said that since 2004, 0.028 per cent of 14 million hectares in B.C.'s protected areas has been affected by boundary adjustments.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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