April 11, 2015 - 10:35 AM
PENTICTON - There is increasing support for a national park in the Okanagan-Similkameen but not everybody is impressed by the idea.
Prospects for a national park in the area arose following a feasibility study conducted in 2004. Strong local opposition to the proposal by ranchers and other stakeholders resulted in revisions to the size of the park, to its present proposed size of 286 square kilometres.
The provincial government withdrew support for the park in 2012, citing a lack of public support, noting also one third of the area under the park proposal was already under provincial protection. Numerous polls and petitions have been released by groups supporting the park since 2004. More recently, efforts have been made to get the province to reopen negotiations for a park with the federal government.
A poll commissioned by the South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Network and conducted by McAllister Opinion Research during March 2015 surveyed residents across the region through 501 telephone interviews.
Sixty-nine per cent of those surveyed favoured a national park in 2015, with 21 per cent opposed and ten per cent neutral. It shows a slight change from the 2010 poll, which showed 63 per cent in favour, with 26 per cent opposed and 11 per cent neutral.
The poll also declared strong majority support for the park across all provincial political parties, with a majority of hunters and other outdoor recreationists voicing their support.
“It was extremely gratifying to see that there is a strong majority of support for the park and that it is continuing to grow,” Doreen Olsen, coordinator of the National Park Network, said in a media release.
The release also noted an economic study commissioned by the federal government found a national park would produce 770 new jobs, $57 million in increased visitor spending in the region and $4.4 million in new provincial tax revenue.
Not all park users are jumping on board with the idea of a national park though. HNZ Topflight general manager Don Venturi questions the numbers provided by the federal government and says though he asked the federal government how they arrived at 770 new jobs, he has yet to receive an answer.
“We’re not in favour of a park. The public has been told our ability to fly in the park would be grandfathered in. I’d like to dispel that myth,” Venturi said.
Parks Canada has not given HNZ Topflight any guaranteed assurance they could continue to conduct their training sessions in the park, Venturi said, noting there is no mechanism for them to continue should someone complain about their activities in an established park.
Venturi is concerned about the impact a national park would have on his business, and the economics he discusses aren't theoretical.
“Most people in the region aren’t aware our training school is here. We operate a world renowned mountain training course for helicopter pilots. We have had pilots come from Turkey, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Norway - we’ve trained pilots for the F.B.I. the U.S. navy and air force,” he said.
HNZ Topflight’s season coincides with Penticton’s tourist shoulder season, which means local hotel owners benefit from the influx of pilots coming here to train.
“We book 3,000 motel nights each year,” he said, noting everyone who trains here also eats in local restaurants and rent cars.
Venturi said many of the pilots return to Penticton with their families to vacation here after being exposed to the region while training.
The facility itself has 14 full time employees, with two more pilots recently hired. The company opened its new $5.3-million office and hangar complex at Penticton Regional Airport in 2012 and now accounts for 38 per cent of all aircraft movement at the airport.
“We’ve been here for 64 years,” Venturi said, adding he feels the company is environmentally conscious.
HNZ Topflight chose Penticton for its location for a mountain training school after attempting to set up shop in other municipalities across the province. No other place had the requisite mountain and weather conditions that would allow them to conduct their three-week courses with assurance of finishing on time.
Most of the training is done in the air over the proposed park. Not even landing pads are built.
“We’re not anti-everything, but we don’t want to lose our jobs. A national park would be the death knell for us. There are ways of protecting the land without making it a national park,” Venturi said.
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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015