VICTORIA — A rule of thumb for judging provincial legislation says to ignore what the minister says in the house and also the press release: read the bill, see what is in the text.
Case in point: Bill 4 of the current legislature session, a two-page effort containing a half-dozen or so amendments to the Park Act.
Introducing the proposed legislation in the house Feb. 13, Environment Minister Mary Polak said the aim was “to provide increased certainty and clarity respecting the authorization of outdoor recreation, tourism, commercial filming and research activities, including academic and investigative uses, in parks and protected areas while ensuring that the natural resources and values and visitors’ experiences are protected.”
The accompanying press release, headlined “Legislation introduced to provide greater clarity in B.C.’s parks” expanded on her point: “These amendments will ensure commercial filming activities in Class A parks are properly authorized … helping to draw more production companies to the province.”
Which sounds like the kind of thing that ought to be in place, given the lure of B.C. scenery in attracting film and television production.
But the release also referred to an amendment to “allow permits for research and information gathering, like vegetation sampling, fish surveys and geotechnical studies, to assist in determining whether future economic development projects may be feasible.”
Such as? The release didn’t say. However, the text of the legislation did answer the question.
Research and feasibility studies that could henceforth be permitted inside parks would include, “without limitation, the feasibility of the location, design, construction, use, maintenance, improvement or deactivation, of one or more of the following: a road or highway, a pipeline, a transmission line, a telecommunications project” and/or “a structure, improvement or work related” to any of the foregoing.
Pipelines? Transmission lines? Highways? Suddenly we were no longer talking about academics doing a little research inside parks or the clean green movie industry shooting in some of the province’s most scenic locations.
“Pipeline companies could conduct research in B.C. parks,” read the headline in the following day’s Vancouver Sun, atop a piece by my colleague Larry Pynn.
Anticipating where the government was headed on this file, Pynn had reported in late 2013 how would-be builders of pipelines, transmission lines and resource roads were already angling to obtain adjustments to the boundaries of at least 35 provincial parks and other protected areas.
Still, when Polak got up in the legislature on March 5 to give a more lengthy defence of Bill 4, she insisted there was nothing surreptitious about her intentions.
“Let me be clear,” she told the house. “These proposed amendments do not allow, promote or otherwise enable industrial projects in parks and protected areas … There is a rigorous process in place for reviewing boundary adjustments, and the proposed amendments in Bill 4 do not change the existing requirements.”
Rather she maintained the goal was to improve the calibre of research — “including low-impact geotechnical studies” — to guide government in future consideration any boundary adjustments.
“To be clear,” she continued, “these amendments do not authorize economic and industrial projects in class A parks and conservancies. The amendments enable the collection of information so that informed and better decisions can be made.”
Still, she couldn’t bring herself to specifically mention pipelines, transmission lines and the rest. That fell to her critic, Spencer Chandra Herbert, who made the most of the appearance of those words in his lengthy dissection of the bill.
“Does it make it easier for a road, a pipeline, a transmission line, a mine or some other potential use in that park to happen? I think this bill does make that easier. Does it make it so that it happens instantly? No. But that’s beside the point. Are we bettering protection for our parks? I would say no.”
Having established their respective turfs with all of the determination of a pipeline company staking a park boundary, the two of them would spend several more sessions debating the meaning of those and other words in the text.
Drilling down, if you’ll pardon the expression in a discussion of what might or might not constitute acceptable geotechnical activity in a provincial park, Chandra Herbert did an exemplary job of bringing out one of the main reasons for the bill. Turns out the Liberals were trying to provide legal cover for some of the decisions they were already making on what is and is not permitted in provincial parks.
Had she disclosed that purpose up front, she might not have raised so many suspicions about B.C. Liberal intentions. But whatever the rationale, with the bill having passed the legislature as of last week, there remains clear cause to monitor what is and is not allowed inside parks under the new permitting regime.