Canada

Wilderness worries

Kananaskis Country’s fans fear the G8 summit will wreak irreparable damage

BRIAN BERGMAN April 29 2002
Canada

Wilderness worries

Kananaskis Country’s fans fear the G8 summit will wreak irreparable damage

BRIAN BERGMAN April 29 2002

Wilderness worries

Canada

Kananaskis Country’s fans fear the G8 summit will wreak irreparable damage

BRIAN BERGMAN

Stephen Legault is paid to lobby on behalf of the environment, but when it comes to Alberta’s spectacular Kananaskis Country, one suspects he would gladly do it for free. Legault, the executive director and co-founder of Wild-

canada.net, which uses Internet technology to wage conservation campaigns across Canada, lives in Canmore, the nearest sizable community to Kananaskis, site of this Junes G8 summit of leaders from eight major industrialized nations. When Legault talks about the sprawling 4,000 sq. km of Rocky Mountain wilderness that is

Kananaskis Country, it’s with the passion of one who knows he has a slice of paradise at his doorstep. “It’s got most of Alberta’s landscapes rolled into one,” he enthuses. “You can stand in the foothills and look to the prairies stretching to the horizon. Then, you turn 180 degrees and see soaring peaks, snow-capped and glacier-clad.

Down below is a raging river where you can fly-fish or paddle. It’s the sort of place that makes an indelible impression and you return to again and again.”

Kananaskis Country is a bit of an enigma. Rivalling the much better known Banff National Park in size and grandeur, Kananaskis is an amalgam of provincial parks, forestry reserves and recreational areas just west of Calgary. Former premier Peter Lougheed’s Conservative government stitched it all together in the mid1970s, using more than $250 million in petro-bucks from the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Yet unlike Banff, which many believe has been sullied by excessive resort and retail development, Kananaskis remains very much a wilderness area. Conservationists like Legault have fought hard to swat down various proposals to commercialize Kananaskis, and with considerable success. But they now worry this could all be jeopardized by Jean Chrétiens decision to hold the G8 summit there on June 26-27. “He is going to attract the eyes of the world to a place that doesn’t need that kind of attention,” says Legault. “We’re afraid that in two days the Prime Minister could very well undo all the hard work by Albertans over the last 15 years to protect this area.”

Legault’s concern is that the extraordinary beauty of Kananaskis, which until now has been one of Calgary’s best-kept secrets, will soon have developers knocking at the gates—and that Ralph Klein’s business-friendly Alberta government will be only too willing to oblige them. Although Kananaskis currently attracts about two million visitors a year, over 85 per cent are from Calgary. Most plant themselves down in one of the area’s 73 modest campgrounds, or simply go there for the day to hike, canoe or mountain bike—and then head home. The so-called Kananaskis Village, where the G8 leaders and their entourages will assemble, consists of two hotels, with about 400 rooms, and a small general store. The handful of permanent residents in Kananaskis Country, mostly government and tourism employees, are easily outnumbered by roaming grizzlies, cougars, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.

It was precisely that seclusion and tranquility that attracted Chrétien in the first place. The Prime Minister announced the choice of the site at the conclusion of last

years G8 summit in Genoa, Italy. That event was marred by street riots which left one anti-globalization activist dead and hundreds of protestors and police injured. Chrétien, who expressed disdain for the way media coverage of the violence overshadowed summit deliberations, was looking for a site that seemed easy to secure (there’s only one main road going into Kananaskis Village) and would provide visiting heads of state with an opportunity for serene reflection.

But some of the protestors planning to show up at this year’s G8 summit believe they may have the last laugh. Thousands of RCMP and city police officers will be deployed in June to secure potentially hundreds of square kilometres of rugged Kananaskis wilderness as well as patrolling the streets of downtown Calgary, where many of the visiting G8 functionaries and media are to be housed. By some esti-

mates, Ottawa will spend more than $300 million to host the summit, much of it going toward security. (Even at that, organizers were recently left red-faced after it was revealed that building plans showing exactly where world leaders will meet had been available on the Internet for weeks). “If they’d held it in an urban centre like Ottawa they could have contained it,” says Alan Keane, an organizer with Co-Motion Collective, which helps train Canadian protestors. “Instead, they’ll have to secure several sites, spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.” Keane doesn’t sound at all distressed at the prospect.

Staging a wilderness summit presents many unique challenges. For the first time at such an event, Ottawa has appointed a full-time environmental coordinator who is eyeballing all summit operations—including security—to minimize damage to local flora and fauna. Among other things, police personnel will receive eco-sensitivity training on how to avoid trampling fragile plants or disturbing nests of endangered species such as the harlequin duck. They will also be taught to deal with possible attacks from elk, moose and other wildlife, which may be nursing their young at summit time. Officers pulling extended backcountry duty are even being

issued poop bags and pee bottles to ferry their own bodily wastes out of the woods. As RCMP Cpl. James Johnston, a spokesman for the summit security team, delicately puts it: “The point is not to leave any lasting human scent out there.”

For all the good intentions, police say their overriding concern has to be security and public safety. And while most environmental groups are urging protestors to stay out of Kananaskis Country during the summit, activists like Keane are undeterred. “You have to look at the big picture,” says Keane, who lives near Nelson, B.C. “The policies of the G8 countries are destructive on a global scale. The minor damage a few hundred people might do to Kananaskis is regrettable, but I think it’s worth it.”

While immediate risks to the environment are an obvious concern, far more worrisome for groups like the Alberta

Police will receive eco-sensitivity training so they will minimize damage to local flora and fauna

Wilderness Association and Wildcanada.net is the spectre of overdevelopment in the longer term. Two years ago, the environmental lobby helped scuttle a Calgary developer’s bid to build a luxury resort and tour boat operation at Spray Lakes, near the western edge of Kananaskis Country. Under pressure, the Alberta government agreed to turn the area into a provincial park. With the G8 summit looming, Legault and others are calling on the province to extend protected status to all of Kananaskis Country (about 60 per cent of it is now covered). In an interview last week, the province’s Community Development Minister Gene Zwozdesky, who is responsible for Kananaskis, declined to make such an undertaking. He did say, however, that the government “wants to keep the area as pristine as we possibly can.”

Legault doesn’t find that very reassuring. “Economic development is what this government is all about,” he says. “When some really big player comes in after the G8 and says he wants to promote tourism and add to Alberta’s coffers, I have no confidence the province won’t buckle.” If Legault is right, the human scent left by Chrétiens wilderness summit may be pungent indeed. E33