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The Big Vision: The evolution of CPAWS

From the Fall 2013/Winter 2014 issue of Canadian Wilderness

As our understanding of the importance of conservation has evolved, CPAWS’ campaigns have become more ambitious

Winter cloaks the Boreal forest in Prince Albert National Park, SK (Photo: Wayne Lynch)

The beauty of natural landscapes appeals to people the world over, Canadians no more so than the Chinese or Columbians or Croatians. Rolling hills, grasslands, mountains, forests, deserts, tundra: they speak to our sense of aesthetics at a primeval level. The allure is timeless: humans are as attracted today to the natural splendour of the outdoors as they were 1,000 years ago. What has changed over the last 50 years is what we know and how we think about natural landscapes.

When the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada (NPPAC), the forerunner to CPAWS, was founded in 1963, it was in part a response to a call from Alvin Hamilton, then Minister of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources in the Diefenbaker government. In the summer of 1960, Hamilton reminded his colleagues in the House of Commons, some of whom were urging him to consider hosting the winter Olympics in Banff National Park, that the fundamental purpose of parks is to preserve them for “the thousands who want these parks and who want them for their quietness and beauty and relief from the pressures of this civilization.”

The go-go post-World War Two years had generated unprecedented, doubling every four years. Canadians had never been as well off, and resource-extraction industries were booming. By the 1960s, however, many Canadians had begun to worry about the impact of development on Canada’s rich ecological heritage that lay behind park boundaries.

“Parks everywhere, especially the national parks, were under siege,” recalled Gavin Henderson, an outspoken British immigrant passionate about conservation who served as NPPAC’s first executive director. In its earliest years, NPPAC focused on sound park management, on  indeed preserving “their quietness and beauty,” as well as on expanding the number of parks. Henderson campaigned to bring an end to hunting in Point Pelee National Park, to block Banff from being used as a venue for the Olympics, and to encourage good stewardship of parks in general. He was quick to take action against perceived threats to parks and took seriously the idea that the landscapes within parks were intended to be preserved “for all time in as near a natural state as possible—foregoing entirely the development of its economic potential.”

Shortly after NPPAC’s launch, Henderson was contacted by Gordon Nelson, a young academic at the University at Calgary. Nelson had grown up in Hamilton, Ontario, on the fringe of the Niagara Escarpment. He studied geography at McMaster University and completed a Master’s at the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. His core interests were land use and conservation.

Nelson, along with other University of Calgary faculty, students and concerned citizens, established a western front for the NPPAC. They brought a scientific and research perspective to NPPAC campaigns. By the early 1970s, NPPAC was recognized nationally and internationally as the leading citizens’ park and conservation organization in Canada.

Nelson, who served as NPPAC president in the early 1970s, is now 81 and still active in conservation efforts. He views parks not as wild fortresses, but as “sources of natural and cultural knowledge.” And he says that in the 1980s, the emergence of concepts of biodiversity and landscape ecology dramatically changed approaches to conservation. To be environmentally sustainable, he believes, land use and conservation efforts need to consider ecosystem thinking, integrating corridors for the movement of wildlife, the history of First Nations land use and environmental thought and practice and particularly climate change.

Biodiversity and landscape ecology are about understanding that, in Aldo Leopold’s words, “The land is a community.” To regard landscapes in these terms is to understand that parks cannot exist as islands; they need to be part of a larger canvas. And so, through the 1980s and 1990s, NPPAC, which was renamed CPAWS in 1986, fundamentally reoriented its approach and reconsidered how to engage Canadians.

“We needed a big idea that defines Canada in the 21st century,” said Harvey Locke, a Calgary lawyer who joined CPAWS in 1981 and served as its vice- president and then president from 1990 to 1995. The first big initiative Locke led was the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), with the goal of creating a continuous corridor for wildlife from Yellowstone National Park in the United States to the Yukon in Northern Canada. It was bold and set the tone for work by CPAWS on a visionary new concept of land use planning for Northeast British Columbia’s spectacular Muskwa-Kechika area.

Now CPAWS has embarked on its most ambitious campaign, calling on the federal and provincial governments to protect fully half of Canada’s land and waters. Although Canada has a resource-intensive economy, Locke and his colleagues in CPAWS believe that the tension between conservation and development that exists in the soul of all Canadians can be reconciled. A 50-50 split is not just an equitable and necessary goal, it is one that generations to come will laud as informed, farsighted and inspired.

Part of the necessity for the conservation of big and connected landscapes, Locke wrote in a recent paper with Brendan Mackey, is that “research has shown clearly that protecting primary ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and peatlands (whether they be tropical, temperate, or boreal) keeps their carbon stocks intact, avoids emissions from deforestation and degradation, and is a necessary part of solving the climate change problem.”

CPAWS volunteers and staff speak for the conscience of Canadians and they do so in a collaborative tone. They work with governments, with local communities, with aboriginal peoples, with industry and with scientists. The volunteers and leaders, such as Henderson, Nelson and Locke, have built an organization that conducts careful research and works at the local and the national level. Their accomplishments are as grand as their ambitions: since its inception, CPAWS has helped protect some half a million square kilometres of Canadian landscapes, an area larger than the Yukon.

Éric Hébert-Daly, the current national executive director of CPAWS, is building on that impressive legacy. He believes that the key to engaging the next generation lies in helping us see beyond the beauty of natural landscapes to their importance for the global climate, the economy and human health.

“The services nature gives us—clean air and water, food and medicine, long-term sustainable eco-tourism opportunities, and spiritual well-being—are not considered when wilderness is replaced with logging trucks and mining pits. Our economics need to evolve to understand that a tree doesn’t only have value when it is cut down. The importance of having a well-informed and engaged public on conservation issues is more critical to us now than it has ever been.”


Rick Boychuk is the former editor of Canadian Geographic magazine.