Birth of a Campaign

by George Smith

The birth of every wilderness campaign is unique. Here’s how the campaign to conserve the Muskwa-Kechika really crystallized one night in November 1992.

In the early 1990s, the War in the Woods in British Columbia was raging full tilt. The Valhalla Society had produced a brilliant map depicting the wild places that conservationists felt should become parks. As was the thing in those days, about 95% of the environmentalists’ focus was clustered near the coast. There were however two giant green blobs on that map in the remote northeast and north central BC called the Muskwa and the Kechika proposed protected areas. Uncharacteristically, it was Fish and Wildlife governmental employees who had convinced the Valhallah Society to get those largest of proposals on their map, all because of the area’s stunning wildlife and wilderness values.

Down south, everyone was extremely busy during that dramatic time, and few of the BC conservationists had spent time that far north and that far from the coast. Yet Kevin Scott, then vice-chair of CPAWS-BC, wondered about the mystery of those enormous proposals. Somehow Kevin convinced me to think seriously about developing a campaign to protect those two big green blobs. So in mid 1992, I found a small pot of money and funded Kevin and Lisa Chartrand to research the wildlife and industrial values in the area. The results were startling. The combination of striking numbers of wild animals within a vast interconnected matrix of roadless, unlogged land was almost unbelievable and thoroughly enticing. But for some months I was far too occupied and so only inched forward the file rather than jumped in.

Then on one night in northeast BC my life changed profoundly.

Ken Madsen and I were in the process of driving a battle-worn rental van around Canada giving multi-media presentations on BC’s Tatshenshini Wilderness. Due to carbon monoxide leaking from the rusted exhaust pipe into the van, which we discovered after leaving Prince George, we were both semi stunned when we finally made it to our next gig in Fort St John. While Ken and I were getting the van repaired, setting up our equipment, feeding ourselves and clearing our lungs and heads, Wayne Sawchuk, chair of the Chetwynd Environmental Society, was holding his first meeting with a handful of hunters and trappers who had come to see our Tatshenshini show. Wayne wanted to see if he could get any local support to protect the Northern Rockies.

That night, our Tatshenshini show was one of the best received anywhere. Then Ken and I followed Wayne to his small home at Moberly Lake where we were to be billeted on the floor. Still feeling the effects of being gassed by our junky van, Ken and I just wanted to sleep. However, big scale dreaming, not sleep was to be my fate that night.

Wayne and I immediately started in on each other about the need to protect the Northern Rockies. He had fallen in love with the area while hunting and trapping in the mountains, ably abetted by his partner Marcie Fofonoff. I on the other hand, was gob smacked by the opportunity to protect what our initial research told me was biodiversity on a grand scale. It must have been pretty comical to watch each of us trying to convince the other to mount a full blown campaign. We went at it for hours well past the moment when poor Ken finally called for mercy and sleep and wrapped a pillow over his head.

Finally we realized that we had both already initiated some preliminary action to protect the area. Wayne knew the area and was prepared to share his photography and northern activism and develop northern support. I agreed to put the full weight of CPAWS into the fray, to go to work on southern media, funders, politicians and bring other conservation organizations on board. We nailed down a few initial objectives and, most importantly, we agreed to work cooperatively and openly. And then, finally it was time for blessed sleep. The campaign to protect what eventually became the Muskwa-Kechika was launched.