Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Shared Visions, Shared Wildernesses: Wilderness Conservation in the Grasslands of Southern Saskatchewan*

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Shared Visions, Shared Wildernesses: Wilderness Conservation in the Grasslands of Southern Saskatchewan*

Article excerpt

Two centuries of hunting, agriculture and economic development have caused declining biodiversity and ecological integrity in the prairie ecozone of southern Saskatchewan. The environmental revolution that started in the 1970s brought a renewed vision to protect remaining wildlife and its habitat, and restore keystone mammals. NGOs and government agencies are acting as partners in this vision, and have been increasingly successful in working cooperatively with land-users such as ranchers, farmers and the water and energy industries. New conservation areas and new initiatives to reintroduce extirpated animals and their habitat offer hope to those who wish to see a new balance between prairie inhabitants and wild nature. However, conservation is not an exact science, and 'fashions' and 'agendas' exist, with inevitable debates about priorities. The article assesses the successes and limitations of these conservation initiatives in the Saskatchewan prairies, and draws conclusions relevant to nature conservation in Canada as a whole.

Concepts of Wilderness and Conservation

To enter the wilderness is to go backwards in time, which may account for the relentless elegiac and archaeological streak in Canadian literature. Margaret Atwood, Strange Things (1995: 49)

THE APPRECIATION AND ENJOYMENT OF WILDERNESS is a distinctive part of Canadian life and culture. Concern for wilderness, and its three strands of natural environment, parks and recreation, consistently ranks alongside global peace-keeping, multiculturalism, sport and social tolerance as a key pillar in the fabric of Canadian society according to polls of citizens and visitors alike (Environment Canada 1999). Nations are frequently judged by the way they treat their land, water, flora and fauna. A popular indicator of these environmental credentials among bureaucrats, the general public, the media, corporate institutions and politicians is the ecological index of biodiversity. This concept is widely used because it is relatively easily understood. However, most ecologists and conservation scientists prefer to use the index of ecological integrity, a term prominent in ecological writings and in government documents such as state of the environment reports and national park management plans. This indicator measures how healthy the ecological components of a specific ecosystem are, and how well they are working together.

Wild areas are areas where ecological, physical-geographical and geological processes reign supreme. I have previously explored the debate over defining wilderness areas and what is 'natural' in my British Association for Canadian Studies Presidential Address of 2002 (Atkinson 2003). There it was noted that the USA was the first country to give a legal definition of wilderness in its Wilderness Act of 1964: 'an area where the earth and its community are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain' (US Wilderness Act, 1964, Section 2). However, the requirement for non-human landscapes in this definition ignores the long-range transport of pollutants that is characteristic of today's earth. It is also unrealistic because it omits aboriginal peoples who, since prehistoric times, have used all the wildernesses on earth (apart from Antarctica) for hunting and herding animals, and for food gathering. In Canada, where there is respect for past and present aboriginal peoples, a more appropriate definition of wilderness is the one suggested by Harold Eidsvik, a former Director of Strategic Planning in Parks Canada: 'wilderness is an area where natural processes dominate, yet where people also coexist, as long as their technology and impacts do not endure' (Eidsvik 1989: 80).

Wilderness is inevitably viewed through national 'cultural spectacles'. In the UK, where there are few areas to match the imposing wildernesses of North America, government agencies and NGOs managing wilderness and advising governments on nature conservation define wilderness in the context of its past and present utility. …

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