Boundary Similkameen MLA Linda Larson

MLA Linda Larson’s controversial “focus group” created to help summarize submissions to the province’s intentions paper on a national park in her riding is officially dead.

A statement from the member for Boundary-Similkameen released Wednesday said: “Since announcing the creation of the five-person focus group … it has become clear that the idea has become a distraction from the thoughtful and needed debate that must occur.

“Therefore, I am announcing that the work of the focus group will not proceed and will be disbanded immediately.”

Larson conceived the group around the Oct. 31 deadline for public input to the environment minister with the idea that it would work in parallel to ministry staff to summarize the more that 400 submissions regarding the South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park.

A controversy erupted, partly because the membership of the group was kept secret, and its mandate was reduced so that it would merely review the summaries created by ministry staff. Larson said earlier this week it would be up to Environment Minister Mary Polak to determine the role of the focus group.

Polak is attending the climate conference in Paris and was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra-Herbert said the whole focus group episode “was completely unnecessary” and now that it’s over the sides in the national park debate can get back to dealing with it.

He urged Larson to apologize for recent comments, in which she referred to some park proponents as “extremists” and “crazy people.”

“Maligning people who have different opinions is not a good idea,” said Chandra-Herbert. “People have strong opinions, but that’s democracy.”

In her release Wednesday, Larson said: “As the MLA for the region, I have always wanted to bring people together to discuss how we move forward and ensure those divisions are bridged. … I wanted to find a way to ensure the voices of those who live and work here, who will be most impacted, had an opportunity to be heard. As an MLA, that is my job and one that I strive to do every day.”

Doreen Olson of the South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Network, a pro-park advocacy group, said Wednesday she is happy with the dissolution of the focus group.

“There was no need to have it and (shutting it down) is an appropriate decision,” she said.

As for Larson’s earlier comments, Olson said, “I get the feeling I would have been included in that group (of extremists and crazy people) … I think a lot of people have taken offence at that.”

The intentions paper released by Polak in August envisions a two-part national park in conjunction with a provincial conservancy.

The so-called Area 1 includes about 68 square kilometres west of Osoyoos and is triangle shaped. The Canada-U.S. border forms one side and Spotted Lake is near the northern tip.

Area 3 contains some 98 square kilometres west of a line roughly between Okanagan Falls and McIntyre Bluff and following the western shore of Vasseau Lake.

The other section – Area 2 – sits in the middle, abutting the southern portion of the national park, but separated from the northern park area by at least five kilometres. It includes Mount Kobau.

Area 2 is the largest, at 177 square kilometres, and is proposed to be a provincial “conservancy,” providing some protection of the land but including “necessary flexibility to ensure existing uses can continue while environmental and First Nations values are protected.”  

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