British Columbia has the highest percentage of its land base dedicated to protected areas in Canada, and one of the largest protected-areas systems in North America.
Parks and activities in BC’s parks are governed by the Park Act. With little fanfare, the Park Amendment Act received Royal Ascent in the British Columbia legislature on March 25th. This Act, known as Bill 4, made several key changes to the Park Act.
The most notable changes to the Act are that previously, a park use permit could only be issued if the applicant could prove that the activity was “necessary for the preservation or maintenance of the recreational values of the park involved.” The amendments remove this provision, allowing the Minister of Environment to grant an exploratory use permit for “research” if it is determined that the research relates to “an environmental assessment or a feasibility study,” or is “necessary to inform decision making around changing the boundaries.” It also reduces the permitting restrictions for smaller parks and enables film production in BC parks.
The “feasibility study” relates to “a road or highway; a pipeline; a transmission line; a telecommunications project” or of any other type of project that the government might decide to include through regulations. Feasibility studies include a study of the feasibility of the “location, design, construction, use, maintenance, improvement or deactivation” of such projects.
A February 13th, 2014 Vancouver Sun article, noted that these investigative use permits could be issued for studies, “including for vegetation sampling, fish surveys and low-impact geotechnical studies. Based on the results of the studies, companies would then have to apply for a boundary adjustment if they wanted to proceed with a project through a park.” In that same article, BC’s Minister of Environment, Mary Polak noted that “Information gained from these preliminary investigations will be helpful to companies as well as the government later in determining the merits of a boundary adjustment. In some cases, the companies might reject the idea of an adjustment and chose a different route, she said. “It has some potentially positive benefits. It’s really valuable information.” Polak also noted that not all permit applications will be from companies seeking industrial projects, but will also be applied to first nations groups and recreational users. Further, she noted that “allowing a small land removal from a park might result in less environmental damage than if a company had to seek an alternative route.”
These changes have been criticized by prominent environmental groups, claiming that there was not enough public consultation on the proposed changes and that the changes risk the integrity and purpose of BC’s Parks. Al Martin, of the BC Wildlife Federation said: “The government has sent a clear signal that it is open to having pipelines cut through our globally renowned protected areas. The Act will now allow industrial exploration in some of BC’s most beloved parks, placing them at risk.”
Darryl Walker, of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union noted that: “If Bill 4 passes, 2014 will be the year that BC Parks changed forever(…)This legislation opens the door to pipelines, oil and gas drilling and industrial activities that are counter to the values that created our parks system.”
Another main criticism is that the term “research” is not defined in the Act, giving the Minister too much discretion. As a spokesman for West Coast Environmental Law notes, “A “trust us, we’re government” approach to parks legislation is not good enough.” NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert said his main concern is to ensure that the process is transparent and the public has the opportunity to comment. “Will this make it easier for the government to run pipelines or transmission lines through a park when people are clearly opposed?” he added. “That’s the risk here, do you make it easier to cut up our parks?”
Despite these criticisms, the BC government has a legal duty to protect parks as a public trust under the Act. It remains committed to environmental stewardship and will continue to balance these obligations against economic realities. In a press release issued by the Ministry of Environment, Minister Polak was quoted as saying that: “The Province remains committed to protecting our natural resources, while at the same time expanding our economic activities(…) Strong economic growth and strong environmental stewardship can co-exist in British Columbia. However, these economic activities will not be at the cost of our environment.” In the Vancouver Sun article noted above, Polak stated that she will personally decide if an investigative-use permit will be issued for a given park. “They’d have to lay out specifically what they intend to do. And then we’d examine what kind of impact potentially that could have on the park.”
Given the minister’s remarks and the nature of the Bill, these amendments are definitely implemented with a view to change park boundaries and industrial corridors through parks to assist with the passage of pipelines and transmissions lines, such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, the North Thompson transmission line, the TransCanada LNG pipeline, the Spectra Energy LNG pipeline and others, all of which have proposed routes through currently protected areas.
Although the exact permit application requirements are not clear at the moment, there is no doubt that permits will only be granted with extensive justification from the applicant and will require significant environmental review. As the government noted, these feasibility studies will play a crucial role in choosing the potentially least damaging routes for the proposed development.
Given the vague language of the Bill and the continued opposition to this development, it is likely that these permits will receive a judicial challenge at some point and will continue to be strongly opposed by environmental groups and many First Nations. Despite moving forward, the path from Alberta to BC is far from clear.