Making Hay on a Slow Snow Day

Part III
Page 3 of 5   |  

"Banff sits like a cork in the middle of a narrow wildlife corridor," Peter Duck tells us as we look out across a snow-covered meadow west toward the spine of the Continental Divide and British Columbia beyond. Beautiful, no doubt, but a four-lane highway slices up the valley floor, three world-class ski resorts slake the aquifer and burn huge amounts of electricity, and a town of 8,000 locals bulges to over 30,000 on peak summer nights—folk who demand water, expunge sewage, and tramp all over the low alpine slopes. This is a corridor that also services the transit of elks, caribou, coyotes, wolves, bears, and thousands of other tiny critters. They can't go higher as the steep mountainsides don't stock the good stuff that fills the valley floor, so it's a cramped space that all these competing flows need to share. A tight, resource-rich bread bowl that's stretched to—and many say beyond—capacity.

Duck, a University of Toronto-trained environmentalist who operates a company called Willow Root Nature Tours and sits on oversight committees analyzing management practices in the park, is philosophical when it comes to addressing these tensions. "It's good we're having the conversation now," he says, continuing after a pause, "and figuring out ways to fix the problems." Problems like human encroachment into valuable wildlife habitat; problems like the ongoing struggle about how best to manage the yearly wildfire equation; problems like road kill, poaching, and pollution.

Some of these issues have direct solutions: A decade ago, Parks Canada erected some 34 miles of eight-foot-high highway fence between Banff and the park's busiest east entrance, keeping animals off the road and away from the semis. Michelle Macullo of the Banff Field Unit reports the fence is 95 percent effective for most species. More recently, they've constructed a series of multi-million-dollar wildlife overpasses, though the success of this initiative is unclear because the animals haven't yet learned to trust the new thoroughfares. Other solutions demand more metaphysical considerations, like whether and how you can encourage people to interact with the ecosystem yet still protect the ecological integrity of trails, lakes, and pristine wilderness areas.

These are big problems that engender small and unseen consequences. We look across the Bow Valley floor to a mountainside that's carpeted about two-thirds of the way up by a covering of trees that looks like an aerial shot of Rome's Praetorian Guard. Except that it's decimated through the middle by the unmistakable balding slash of an old prescribed forest burn. Set by Parks Canada authorities in the summer of 2003, the fire burned briefly out of control before nature applied the brakes. The problem of wildfire is indicative of the challenges faced by Parks Canada: essentially, to burn or not to burn? Torch controlled sections of the forest and you clear fuel that might otherwise ignite a bigger, more destructive blaze; do so, though, and you consume the cover of the forest's understory—plus you piss off the locals and terrify the tourists.

Published: 9 Aug 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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