A final decision on the proposed South Chilcotins Park will likely be handed down in the next few weeks by Minister of Sustainable Resource Management Stan Hagen.
On April 11, the minister released a first draft of a plan to the public that supported the creation of a park in the South Chilcotin Mountains, but it was a smaller park than was approved in principle by the outgoing NDP government last spring. The draft also removed the special management zones that surrounded the park.
According to environmental groups, the new plan compromises wildlife, recreational, and tourism values in the area. For the past month since the draft was released, groups like the Sierra Club of B.C., the South Chilcotin Mountains Wilderness Society, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) have been sending letters and e-mails to the minister asking the government to restore the park to its original size.
At the last public meeting, more than 600 people attended. A number of Whistler locals have an interest in the area, owning property bordering the park, operating tourism businesses in the area, and using the area for horseback tours, mountain biking, backcountry skiing, and other forms of recreation.
"The Sierra Club and conservation, recreation, tourism and community groups worked for five years on the Lillooet land use planning process to reduce the risk of losing an already diminished population of grizzly bear in this magnificent area of B.C.," says Bill Wareham, the executive director of the Sierra Club of B.C. "We believe the Campbell government is unfortunately putting mining and other economic interests above all else and reducing the chances of recovery of this threatened grizzly population. We think a more progressive and sustainable approach is in order."
Wayne McCrory, a biologist and founder of the Valhalla Wilderness Society is just one of the people who feel that the park thats being proposed by the ministry is too small to support the grizzly population.
"Grizzlies could very well become extinct here unless the government takes strong action," he says. "If bears are going to be more than a memory in Lillooet, government must restrict access and development in large wilderness areas, implement ecosystem-based logging to protect critical grizzly habitats, ensure that undisturbed corridors for grizzlies exist, and keep road densities to a minimum."
Bill Spencer, a long-time resident of the area and a member of the Yalakom Ecological Society agreed with McCrorys assessment.
"Grizzly bears are a key part of the Lillooet regions spectacular landscape, and it would be a terrible crime to lose this opportunity to ensure their protection and recovery."
Aside from grizzly values, conservationists and tourism groups say the local tourism industry is responsible for more than $10.5 million in revenues annually and 175 full-time equivalent jobs, even without official park status. Provincial revenues would be in the neighbourhood of $1 million annually.
Those figures were taken from the provincial governments own economic impact study.
As far as negative impacts to the resource industries go, the original plan, which was part of the Lillooet Land and Resource Management Plan, called for the creation of 14 new parks in the area, as well as the creation of special management zones that would allow for activities like mining. It also said it was possible for an increase in the annual allowable cut for the area for local logging companies, outside of the park boundaries.
With time running out, environmental groups are stepping up their campaign to get the public involved in the letter-writing campaign.