This is part of a speech by Karl Stevenson, given at a FOSP public meeting in August, 2009, and contains excerpts from the FOSP Freedom of Information (FOI) request to do with the Strathcona Park Master Plan alteration to allow commercial horse operations in the Bedwell Valley and other areas of the park.
When we first decided to make the Freedom of Information request, there were a number of things we were on the lookout for. Fairly high on the list was anything which could be helpful if we decided to initiate a legal battle against a bad government decision. We were also interested in whether the government or parks staff showed any agenda or bias toward allowing horse use in the Bedwell or other areas of the park. Publicly, they were claiming they had no bias.
For myself, I found it interesting how thinking among parks staff appeared to change, quite markedly, from an initial viewpoint that the Master Plan clearly didn’t allow horse use in the Bedwell, to the idea that the Master Plan wasn’t clear, after all, and that commercial horse use might actually be sanctioned by the plan. A plan that seemed clear in the beginning, soon became “unclear”, and needed to go through an amendment process to achieve “clarity”.
In reading the correspondence, I found two items which might be helpful in explaining this change of mind. One is a reference to a possible “corporate desire” to change the Master Plan to make horse use in the Bedwell allowable, and the other refers to evaluating the horse proposal “in the new era of looking at opportunities for Private/Public Partnerships”. I might be wrong, but in this case I think “corporate desire” can likely be interpreted as “government desire”, and most of us are probably aware of the strong interest of the current government in so-called Private Public Partnerships.
In any case, the first record we have of any mention of the Bedwell horse issue comes approximately 5 years ago, from the minutes of a Strathcona Park Public Advisory Committee(SPPAC) meeting, held on October 28, 2004. At this meeting, Ron Quilter, Parks Section Head for the North Island, was recorded as saying “The issue of horses in the Bedwell has been turned down. It’s a dead issue.” I should say that this quote didn’t come from the FOI material, but it’s a good place to start.
Then, in May, 2006, there’s an e-mail from Chris Kissinger, Strategic Initiatives Manager, Vancouver Island Regional Office, to Ron Quilter- “…we need to determine if the activity is allowable. If it is not, then we need to ask if there is a corporate desire to open the management plan to make the activity allowable. This needs to be done before we allow CWR to spend any $$ on preparing the application.”
On July 13, 2007, there is an e-mail from Ron Quilter, which I think sums things up fairly well, but I’ll just include parts of it here. “The intent of the current management plan is fairly clear that horses are not allowed in this area. ……….We have entertained and evaluated the permit application in the new era of looking at opportunities for Private/Public Partnerships, and that Management Plans are policy documents not legislated so therefore can be changed. ……….We have used the Strathcona Park Management Plan as pretty much a bible in determining allowable and appropriate activities within the park. Applications we have reviewed in the past were looked at via the actions and zoning in the plan and were rejected if not consistent. Ten years ago we probably would have rejected this permit outright due to conflict with the management plan.”
Then, on October 12, 2007, an e-mail from Scott Benton(Executive Director,Parks and Protected Areas Division) to Ken Morrison(Manager Planning and Land Administration) “I do agree that if the plan is silent, then it can be assumed the activity wasn’t contemplated here.”
Also on October 12, an e-mail from Michelle Carr(Manager,Outdoor Sector Development,Tourism Development Branch) “I have reviewed the plan, and in my opinion, I read the text as only allowing horse use in specific areas.”
And on October 18, 2007, an e-mail from Mona Holley(Senior Parks and Protected Areas Planner, Planning and Land Administration Section) “My interpretation of the plan is that horse use is not permitted here.”
Shortly thereafter, on December 14, 2007, a Ministry of Environment Decision Note appears recommending to undertake a focussed Management Plan Amendment Process “to determine if an amendment to the Strathcona Park Master Plan allowing limited use of horses is appropriate. Utilize the outcome of this process to assist in the adjudication of the permit application.”
On January 14, 2008, an e-mail from Ken Morrison to Dick Heath(Regional Manager) and others. “I have signed off the Terms of Reference. An executed copy is attached. As suggested earlier, I recommend that you do not take an approved Terms of Reference to SPPAC. It may be more beneficial to go with a draft Terms of Reference, and provide SPPAC the opportunity to provide input. SPPAC may not feel the opportunity to provide input is real if the Terms of Reference have already been signed off.”
On January 19, 2008, an e-mail from Ron Quilter : “The SPPAC committee is also in full consensus that they do not support the Master Plan Amendment process for horse use in the park…they are united that the current plan does not allow horse use in the Bedwell.”
Same day reply from Dick Heath : “Ouch. Does that infer they won’t recognize the outcome of the amendment process?”
In closing, I’d like you all to ask yourselves something I’ve been asking myself for years now. What’s driving this process? Why wasn’t the permit denied 5 years ago, when it should have been? Why wasn’t it denied when SPPAC said no? Why wasn’t it denied when the public said no, emphatically, around 90%? And finally, why is this costly and senseless process still going on, when the core people involved in the creation of the Master Plan have stated plainly that it was never the intention of the plan to allow horse use in the Bedwell, or in any area not specifically mentioned in the plan.
The Master Plan itself was originally created with years of effort, and extensive input from the public, and its intent for the park has always been very clear – minimal human impact. No matter how the government tries to slice it, commercial horse use is most definitely not minimal human impact.
The government decision to significantly alter the Strathcona Park Master Plan shows a callous and cynical disregard for the hundreds of dedicated people who worked for years to create a plan which has worked so well for so long. That it was changed to cater to the whims of one wealthy resort owner is extremely hard to accept.
Most people seem to understand that wilderness parks are not created to serve commercial interests, but Strathcona has suffered that fate from the beginning. As our oldest provincial park nears the end of its first 100 years of abuse by government and industry, it’s painful to see the trend being continued.