Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Conservation controversy re-emerges

The Southern Rocky Mountain Conservation Area was a faux pas on the part of the former NDP govern­ment and local conservation groups that may not last, says East Kootenay MLA-elect Bill Bennett,

"That's a very real possibility,” Bennett said.

Bennett's statement was spurred by comments made in a meeting between Rob Neil, habitat biolo­gist with the Ministry of Sustainable Resources (for­merly the Ministry of Environment Lands and Parks) and a diverse and large group of Elk Valley stake­holders concerned with land use issues,

During the June 6 Elk Valley Integrated Task Force meeting, Neil, who is based out of Cranbrook, said a public consultation process concerning the area would begin shortly.

"In the next couple of weeks we'll have something to present to the public on the consultation process," Neil told stakeholders.

But Bennett countered the comment by saying no consultation process will happen as outlined by Neil. "He's not going to have anything to take to the pub­lic," Bennett said while speaking on behalf of Minister of Sustainable Resources Stan Hagen.

"The official position is we are going to freeze the process as it is. Whether we move forward with the process or whether we go back on it, we have to establish what the process is going to be and what the costs are because 280,000 hectares is too important to allow this to be rushed through," Bennett said.

Also during the meeting, which was attended by a variety of interests from the mining and forestry industries, recreational user groups and other land use stakeholders, Neil gave the impression the con­servation area was a done deal based on talks he had in Victoria prior to the meeting, Bennett said those comments were inappropriate for a public servant to be making.
"People have to get beyond their particular biases and prejudices, Neil told the audience while explaining the process that lead to the establishment of the conservation area. "I don't think we can squander these opportunities,"

Neil continued. "Politics are involved - it's not here to pre­clude opportunities. I think there's an oppor­tunity to do something very positive in a posi­tive way."

The conservation area was established April 6 by the former NDP government following a joint proposal from the East Kootenay Environmental Society and the East Kootenay Wildlife Association.

It encompasses an area extending from the BC/Montana border north through the Flathead, Wigwam and portions of the Elk/Bull River watersheds to the southern boundary of Height of the Rockies Provincial Park. It also contains key grizzly bear habitat and serves as a link between the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem grizzly bear population in the US and neighbouring grizzly bear populations, in Canada.

The NDP announcement was made by Erda Walsh, the sitting MLA, and immediately sparked heavy criticism and controversy from commercial and recreational interests, due to what Bennett termed "incomplete consultation,"

"The process leading up this was not open, was not complete and we're not going to do anything until we do full scientific and socio-economic studies- The scientific study makes the determination it any extra protection is necessary," Bennett said, adding it was as if thy people spearheading the formation of the conservation area were allowed to set public policy and are still attempting to do so. "We are simply not going to make land use decisions unless we know what the cost is and if they don't like it that's too bad," Bennett said.

"And I want to make it clear I'm not talking about the hunters and fishers. I'm talking about the environmentalists who think they can make public policy," he said.


Representatives of the Kootenay Wildlife Coalition had these comments/or the new government on hearing the news that the Southern Rocky Mountain Conservation Area was to be halted for further governmental investigation

Erica Konrad of the East Kootenay Environmental Society said she would urge the government to listen to the constituents, suggesting they "get on board with the conserva­tion area" and see what it will offer.

George Wilson of the East Kootenay Wildlife Association said they were "more concerned with other decisions being made that have nothing to do with resource extraction." The BC Lands and Assets Company, whose man­date is to administer Crown land has been bringing in commercial back country recreations "which is having a bad impact, on wild life."Southern Guides and Outfitters Association rep­resentative Dave Beranek's comments were that he "wouldn't expect: any dif­ferent. I think it will bring management to in equal playing field," adding the process is important because "for a good sound decision to be made it will take time."

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