Posted by: friendsofstrathcona | December 5, 2009

Strathcona Park: A Sad History (by Karl Stevenson)

This is the first in a series of articles dealing with Strathcona Park. Although I write specifically about Strathcona, it should be obvious that changes to one provincial park are very likely to affect other parks in the system. In these articles I will try to show, using Strathcona Park as an example, that wilderness parks have always been on precarious footing in BC, and that things are no different in the present day.

Strathcona Park was created in 1911, and was the first provincial park in BC. In 1918, it was opened to prospecting and mining. What followed was a roller coaster ride of various levels of “protection”, and classification and re-classification, until, as the “flagship of the BC parks system”, it has been logged, mined, polluted and dammed to an almost unbelievable degree. In 1987, the government of the day carved an industrial corridor right through the centre of the park, opening it up to virtually any industrial or commercial activity, and dumped several areas, including the Bedwell valley, from the park entirely.

In 1987, I was 39 years old, and I’d been hiking in the park for most of my life. I’d become used to seeing logged valleys and and piles of abandoned mining garbage in my various journeys through what was, according to park brochures, “untouched wilderness”. As truck loads of ore roared past me out of the park, nicely worded signs warned me that “even rocks are part of the park’s heritage. Please don’t damage or remove them”. Other signs, worded equally nicely, requested me not to litter, and I thought of the piles of trash dumped by mining companies in the mountains all around me, and the trout dying from acid mine drainage in the polluted creek at the head of Buttle Lake. Even more ridiculous were the signs advising me not to damage or remove flowers, shrubs, or trees. Whole valleys in the park had been robbed of miles of beautiful old growth timber, and directly behind the sign, a mess of huge stumps stretched into the distance along the ruined lake shore.

Back then, as I read these idiotic signs, and the ore trucks rumbled through the park behind me, removing the “park’s heritage” by the ton, I wondered what sort of conclusions I was supposed to draw from this. Was it “bad” if you removed the “park’s heritage” one rock at a time, but “good” if you removed it by the truck load? What about plants? Was it OK to trash them, as long as you removed whole valleys at a time? And what about litter? Were commercial concerns allowed to dump their garbage in the park, as long as their mess was big enough? Although I didn’t see any cutely worded signs telling me this, it seemed obvious that the government thought it was just fine to inflict all sorts of damage upon the park, as long as the damage was on a sufficiently massive scale.

As you might expect, I found all this somewhat baffling and disturbing. After all, weren’t governments supposed to protect parks? Wasn’t the park created by government in the first place? Was it the job of park rangers and administrators to just stand aside and watch, while commercial concerns enthusiastically went about their business of destroying many of the most beautiful areas in the park? Did this make sense somehow?

Unfortunately, I now know it makes perfect sense if we accept the idea that all governments want money, and they’ll do almost anything to get it, and it’s not at all unusual for other values to be badly trampled in the process. Government decision makers, more often than not, are chosen for their understanding of money, but they very seldom seem to have any real understanding of the true purpose and value of wilderness parks. Park wardens and administrators may have some love for parks, but if they value their jobs they learn to remain silent, or even act as defenders of industrial and commercial concerns operating within park boundaries. With these facts in mind, it shouldn’t be too hard to understand why parks have historically come off second best, when the choices have been between park values and money.

There might be plausible explanations for this historical truth, but that doesn’t make it right. I believe we genuinely need at least a few areas in our society that are protected from our commercial activities, if only to remind ourselves that it’s not always necessary for us to attempt to turn everything we see into cash. I also believe that when we try to turn a park into cash, we defeat the purpose of creating the park in the first place. I’m not surprised when governments which see everything in terms of money don’t understand this, but I can’t accept that it’s good for the park, or for the people who genuinely love and use the park, or for our society in general.

The current government recently ignored public opinion and butchered the Strathcona Park Master Plan in order to allow a wealthy resort owner to practice high impact commercial activities in the park. In doing so, this government unfortunately followed in the footsteps of the many previous governments which have abused Strathcona Park in the past. In 2011, Strathcona will have suffered 100 years as “the flagship of the BC park system”, and we will be expected to celebrate its sad history. Unfortunately, in the case of parks in BC, it still seems to be true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The next article will deal with the Strathcona Blockade of 1988.

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