THIS CANADA

Discord in Peace Park

Gordon Legge September 27 1982
THIS CANADA

Discord in Peace Park

Gordon Legge September 27 1982

Discord in Peace Park

THIS CANADA

Gordon Legge

On the gravel shores of Cameron Lake, in the western reaches of Waterton Lakes National Park, a visitor stands at the centre of a subalpine amphitheatre of Olympian proportions. To the right are the peaks

of spruce, fir and pine that make up the continental divide. To the south is Mount Custer, whose massive avalanche slopes empty into the water. There, at the end of the lake, it is possible to trace the invisible line of the 49th parallel running across the foot of the mountain.

Named after Charles Waterton, a British naturalist who never set foot in the area, Waterton Park encompasses 200 square miles of rugged mountain ridges and rolling prairie grasslands wedged into the southwest corner of Alberta. It joins Glacier Lake National Park in the United States to form Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park, created in 1932 to commemorate the “long-existing relationship between the people and governments of Canada and the United States.” The creation of the joint park realized a dream of two area pioneers: John George (Kootenai) Brown, a Shakespeare-quoting frontiersman who was Waterton’s first settler, and Brown’s friend Henry (Death-on-the-Trail) Reynolds, one of Glacier’s first foresters, so nicknamed because of his propensity for leaving exhausted companions collapsed on the trail in the wake of his swiftly moving hiking boots. Since the first settlers arrived in the 1850s, visitors have commented on the serenity that pervades the region. As one participant in the 1932 dedication ceremony noted: “The whole region has about it something indescribable. Perhaps the imminent presence which broods over it, and which is universally felt, may best be described as Peace.”

Yet—on the Canadian side—that tranquil aura conceals a long-simmering feud between tne Parks Canada officials who run Waterton and many of the veteran business people who serve the park’s half-million visitors each summer. Moreover, efforts by Parks officials to create a United Nations-sponsored international biosphere reserve, encompassing both the park itself and the area surrounding it, have been met with suspicion and indifference by those living on the park’s borders. Finally, the park is increasingly a wilderness island, squeezed on three sides by forest, mining, oil and gas and recrea-

tional development. Thus, in a tiny corner of Canada predicated on peace, questions over man’s coexistence with nature have created a commotion.

The original intention of the park’s founders, in 1895, was to preserve a small piece of the country’s natural heritage. But, as early as 1915, federal planners saw the potential for economic development to attract tourist dollars, particularly from the United States. The sleepy town of Waterton is dominated by the Prince of Wales Hotel, a Swiss-style, log-hewn inn built in 1927 as part of a major thrust to turn the park into a tourist haven. But business people say the drive to attract tourists was reversed in the 1960s as the environmental movement began to take hold. “Thirty years ago it was a lot more fun. There were a lot more things going on that brought people,” says Marion Schmidt, recalling the dance palace that once stood across the street. Schmidt and her husband, Leo, run the Tourist Café, a cosy diner on Waterton’s main street that has changed little since it was opened in 1923. Leo Schmidt, 65, who makes all his own pies, dinner rolls, muffins and donuts, chews on an unlit wooden match stub and agrees. “They [Parks Canada] don’t want to spend any money in the town anymore. It has just been going downhill for the past 20 years. Look at the roads, the sidewalks, the lamps. Sometimes I think they want to do away with the townsite.”

The run-down condition of local roads and sidewalks is a favorite grievance of storekeeper Wendy West, who complains that Parks officials today are more interested in animals than they are in people. “Basically, what they’re trying to do is push everybody out of here,” she says. West and her husband, Rod, run a grocery and convenience store, open seven days a week, April through September. It is a Mom-andPop operation, typical of many Waterton businesses, relying heavily on family help to keep costs down and make a profit. In the past two summers the rent on the Wests’ store has risen to $2,196 a month from $379, and the Wests are appealing to their landlord— the federal government. In Waterton there is no elected council to which residents can turn to grieve. As in all national parks, Waterton residents must rely on their landlord’s benevolence in correcting concerns. “Living in a national park is as close as you get to a dictatorship in a free country,” says Rod West.

But Waterton Park’s new superintendent, Bernie LiefF, 40, denies that the town is hard done by. With only 200 square miles of surrounding park, Waterton is, in relative terms, as developed as Banff, LiefF insists. And he does not

want it to get much bigger. Pointing to a significant decline in the park’s budget over the past five years, Lieff noted, “We’ll eventually have to face the reality that something’s got to go—either by decreasing staff or reducing service.” Either way, more tourists in the park will not be welcome. “We’re having difficulty coping with the level of use we’re getting now, and there are indications it will get worse.”

Some Waterton residents like the town the way it is. Rick Kratz, who owns the 52-room Bayshore Inn along the edge of Waterton Lake and who

plans to construct an addition, does not want to see Waterton become another Banff, overrun year-round with tourists. “I would hate to see this park wrecked. The biggest selling point we have is the peace and the quiet and the animals.”

However, even Kratz questions what Parks Canada is trying to do to the business people. In June, after an hour-long meeting between federal Environment Minister John Roberts—who was there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Park—and the business community, Kratz left shaking his head

in disbelief. Despite the fact that the park receives only a handful of visitors from French Canada (most visitors come from southern Alberta and U.S. border states), the push for bilingualism is on in the park. Says Kratz: “They have intimated to us it will become a requirement of our licence, which is as much as saying, ‘You’re going to or else.”’

Underlying the Albertans’ dissatisfaction with park management is, of course, a general dislike of anything imposed by the federal government. And this does not make it any easier for

Bernie Lieff to proceed with his plans to make a reality of Waterton’s designation by UNESCO as an international biosphere reserve. (There is only one other biosphere reserve in Canada, at MontSaint-Hilaire in Quebec, which is managed by McGill University.) A reserve comprises a “core area” of undisturbed wilderness land plus a surrounding swath of land or “buffer-zone” that is used and developed by man. Ideally, Parks officials and buffer-zone users must co-operate to make the biosphere a success. To that end, Lieff is putting together a committee of the various buffer-zone land users—mining companies, forestry firms, oil and gas companies (the site of Western Canada’s first producing oil well is located within the park, at Oil City, eight kilometres from the townsite), ranchers and provincial wildlife officials.

A prime area of concern is the coal mine being developed near the western border of the park by Sage Creek Coal Ltd., a B.C. subsidiary of two multinational firms, Rio Algom and Pan-Ocean Oil. For years Parks officials have successfully fought attempts to push a highway through the park to southeastern British Columbia. Now, a paved road being built up to the coal mine will have a similar effect, providing easier access to the park’s western reaches and, hence, possibly changing the ecological balance in that area—the very thing officials have been fighting to avoid. “We certainly don’t take a position against resource extraction outside the park,” says Lieff. “But we’re concerned about whether what goes on will have an impact on park resources.”

So far, however, neighboring businessmen, ranchers and government officials have been reluctant to become involved. Ranchers, who have been known to take aim at elk which tend to stray from the park into their fields in the spring, are traditionally hostile to the park. An exception is local rancher Charlie Russell, son of famed Canadian conservationist Andy Russell, who sits on one of the park’s biosphere committees. When the committee sent out a questionnaire this year to 50 local ranchers asking them how they felt about the park, they received only four replies. Russell, who sees the biosphere concept as helpful in preserving ranchland from commercial development, feels that this is shortsighted. As he told a biosphere symposium in Montana in late June, “I like the concept that we do not inherit our land from our ancestors, but rather we borrow it from our children.” However, at this stage, the only thing that is clear about the goings-on in Waterton is that the parents of those children will be arguing for many years to come about the kind of inheritance they intend to bequeath.