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Dr. David Henry to receive CPAWS J.B. Harkin Medal


Dr. David Henry addresses Prince Albert City Council on behalf of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society (image courtesy of Prince Albert Daily Herald)

What makes someone dedicate their life to conservation? What motivates a John Livingston, a Roderick Haig-Brown, a Betty Krawczyk, or a Kevin Van Tighem? What fires and inspires our local conservation heroes who work on the unending task of protecting Canada's last wild and natural places?

This weekend, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society will honour the achievements of a scientist and advocate who has done much to protect our boreal forest and native prairie places. When he steps to the podium to receive the J.B. Harkin Medal at Nature Saskatchewan’s Fall Meet Banquet, Dr. David Henry will no doubt be humble in receiving the award. He may, however, say something about why he chose to dedicate his energies to a career, a vocation, and years of volunteer service devoted to the cause of parks and protected areas. I hope he does.

No conservationist offers up their hours of labour for awards. Misinformation campaigns to the contrary, few defenders of wild places are in it for the wealth and adulation.

I do not know David very well, but I can imagine he might say he chose this path in life because he likes being in wild places himself. He wants to pass on a world that still has room for caribou and sage grouse. It is often as simple as that. His wonderful books, Red Fox: the Catlike Canine, and Canada’s Boreal Forest (both published by the Smithsonian) show a deep love and respect for other living creatures and for the land itself.

If not for love and respect, why would a scientist like David have stepped far beyond the confines of academia to bring his voice into the public sphere where it could help influence public policy? Why would he have worked so hard in the face of intense opposition from many quarters to ensure that Canada would finally have a Grasslands National Park? Why would he have served on the boards of CPAWS and the Saskatchewan Environmental Society and acted as science advisor for these and other groups?

And why would he today as a volunteer, continue to present papers and speak in public on the need for clean drinking water, and the environmental implications of our hastily-drafted trade agreements?

Perhaps most noteworthy among David’s many accomplishments was his role in a public campaign to introduce the concept of ecological integrity into a revision of the National Parks Act of Canada. By getting ecological integrity written into the act in 1987-88, CPAWS and other conservation groups ensured that Canadians would have legal protection for ecosystems in our National Parks—protection that cannot be trumped by other values.

Despite the legacy of David Henry and many others, though, people are worried that Parks Canada may be veering away from its ecological mandate (see the issues around new trails at Grasslands National Park) and allowing budget cuts and the development agenda of the Harper government to shape park policy. Though Parks Canada has lost many of its scientists and senior employees through recent austerity measures, the agency still has people with the passion and dedication of a David Henry on staff. Grasslands National Park in particular will need someone with David’s sensitivity and commitment to ecological integrity to ensure that efforts at increasing visitation never take precedence over the need to protect species and their habitat.

If you see David at the Nature Saskatchewan meet this weekend, take a moment to thank him for the work he has done to conserve Canada’s parks and protected areas. It is up to all of us who share his concern and love for wild places north of the 49th to ensure that no government will degrade or compromise the many achievements of Parks Canada in recent decades.