The grassroots movement to see a grasslands national park established in the South Okanagan-Similkameen area is quietly gaining momentum after the province formally pulled out of talks with the federal government two years ago.

In that time, members of the South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Network have been working steadily to show the province they have support for the project.

Doreen Olson, a director with the network, told members of the Nicola Naturalist Society the goal is to get the province to support the proposed national park.

“It’s a grassroots group that believes a national park is good for communities, conservation, recreation, jobs and the economy,” Olson said.

National parks are under federal jurisdiction and are operated by Parks Canada. Parks Canada’s National Parks System Plan aims to establish a national park for each of 39 types of natural areas in Canada. There are seven national parks in B.C. and the plan is just over half complete.

Proponents for the park say it will create well-paying jobs, encourage tourism, protect delicate ecosystems which aren’t covered by Parks Canada’s already established parks, and prepare those ecosystems for rehabilitation.

“Part of the problem is people don’t really know where it’s located and how big it is,” Olson said.

The proposed park site sits in the valley between the South Okanagan Valley and the Similkameen Valley in the Osoyoos-Oliver area, which is home to several ecosystems and dozens of endangered and at-risk species.

A concept area for the proposed 284-square-kilometre national park drafted in 2010 is bordered by Highway 97 in the east, the U.S. border in the south, Highway 3 in the west and on the northern edge between Cawston and Oliver.

Talks about creating a national park in this area have been ongoing for well over a decade.

The process of establishing a national park in the Southern Interior formally began in 2004 with a feasibility study by Parks Canada.

That study proceeded to include consultations with thousands of stakeholders over several years.

Parks Canada released its first official proposal on the proposed Grasslands National Park in 2006.

The feasibility study was completed in early 2011, and though never released, found it would be financially feasible but could not continue without the support of the provincial government.

In 2012, the province withdrew from talks after deciding the park had only tepid local support.

Olson told members of the Nicola Naturalist Society the province pulled out after pressure from special-interest groups.

She said the province’s concern that the park would limit hunting, ranching and recreation opportunities is not accurate, and the group needs to show people the boundaries to clear that up.

“It’s not taking land away from hunters,” Olson said.

“Ranching and cattle grazing will continue in the park. Ranchers will continue to own their lands and tenures if they wish.”

Olson said the network isn’t sure who’s behind the 22 signs that say “No Park” around the area.

At this year’s Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention, local governments endorsed a resolution sponsored by the Town of Osoyoos to ask the government to formally re-engage in negotiations with the federal government.

“The province needs to re-engage, then Canada and B.C. can begin to negotiate the park boundaries,” she said.

Olson said the benefits of a national park designation far outweigh those of a provincial park, including a budget of at least four times that of a provincial park, more employees, ability to protect more land, restoration of endangered species, required community input and mandatory fire protection services.

A three-year study by the Syilx Working Group found the park would be feasible and the project is also supported by the Okanagan Nation Alliance, comprised of eight member First Nations.

She said encroaching development, including vineyards, are one of the threats facing the ecosystem.

Olson said the group’s aim is what it has always been: gather support for the project and show that support to the province.

“If we can just tell people about these things and get them interested in these little things that we have that they probably have no idea about, then they’ll tell somebody and they’ll tell somebody and pretty soon we’ll have everybody understanding the special place that we live in,” Olson said.

“While we wait, our communities are missing out on all the benefits,” she said.