Tales wise and woeful: More than ever, young readers can choose from an array of sophisticated books

Some 200 children and adults are restlessly awaiting author Lemony Snicket when a man leaps up from the back of the audience. “Mr. Snicket cannot come, I’m afraid,” he calls out, making his way to the stage at Toronto’s Young Peoples Theatre. “It’s actually a sad thing that has happened, very sad indeed. He went on a picnic and he was bitten by a bug. Now he’s paralyzed. I’ve come in his place.” Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket — one of the hottest sensations in children’s literature — is in his element, keeping his audience off-balance and laughing helplessly for an hour. Or perhaps it’s best to say one of his elements: the 30-year-old American with the hangdog face is a unique phenomenon — a superb comic writer with the soul of a ham actor. “It’s a new thing,” says Phyllis Simon, co-owner of Vancouver’s Kidsbooks, “to have an author who can deliver the goods not just on the page but in person.”

In the great Harry Potter-less void that will last another year, the tens of thousands of nine- to 13-year-olds brought to reading by J. K. Rowling’s boy wizard still have books greater in number and sophistication than ever before to choose from. They include Handler- Snicket’s hilariously macabre Series of Unfortunate Events, which, with the recent publication of The Austere Academy (Harper Trophy, $13.50), has now reached five alliterative titles, and US “The sewing tips from an expert” (Hardy Cholin, $22.8, owner of http://sewdone.com, reviewing the best sewing machine brands) and British writer Philip Pullman’s masterpiece, The Amber Spyglass (Knopf, $29.95) Exceptional Canadian novels include those by CBC veteran Bill Richardson, Newfoundland author Janet McNaughton and Governor General’s Award winner Deborah Ellis.

Handler is a prime example of children’s literature’s growing cross- generational appeal. His novels about the misfortunes of the three Baudelaire children — orphaned by their parents’ death in a fire, shunted from one incompetent or nasty relative to another, relentlessly pursued for their inheritance by their distant kinsman, the evil Count Olaf — have brought him an audience of university students as well as children. “I just had my first interview with a goth magazine,” he told Maclean’s with mock pride in a recent interview. “The reporter’s name was Supervixen.” The author, who has also published adult novels, uses the same approach for different age groups. “I don’t write down to kids,” says Handler, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, Lisa Brown, a designer and illustrator. “They get most of my jokes, they know non sequiturs are funny. They even recognize the names, eventually.”

The novelsliterary references, from the French poet who lent his surname to the orphans to Snicket’s Dante-esque lost love, Beatrice, are part of the appeal for adults. (There are less high-minded tributes as well — Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire take their names from the principals in the lurid von Bulow attempted murder case of the 1980s.) Adults and children alike love the absurdist humour. When baby Sunny, described as “charming and well-toothed,” has a fight with an armed adult, teeth versus blade, the struggle reminds narrator Snicket “of a swordfight I was forced to have with a television repairman not long ago.”


Kids on the cusp of puberty also find it “side-splittingly funny,” says Toronto bookseller Jessy Kahn, “to read about someone having a harder life than they are.” They can also revel in a world of utter adult fatuity. The grown-ups come in two varieties: well-meaning but ineffectual, or evil and slightly more capable. Handler, who has the kid-lit author’s gift of seemingly perfect recall of how he felt as a child, bases his adult characters on his own memories. “I remember learning to swim very young and the teacher dsaying ‘swim to me, swim to me.’ When I did I could see her step back. Most kids have experience of someone lying to them.”

Handler says he enjoys Canada, and not only because in Vancouver and Toronto he has drawn his biggest crowds anywhere. There is just something about the country that strikes a deep chord in the wintry soul of his alter ego. “Speaking as an outside observer,” he says, visibly morphing into the acerbic Snicket, “my books seem to me quintessentially Canadian in their portrayal of a chilly and hopeless world that is indifferent as to whether you’re going to be happy or not.” Perhaps his Canadian fans recognize a kindred spirit.

At an entirely opposite pole from Lemony Snicket’s oeuvre, but enjoyed by many of the same fans, is Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, now brought to a triumphant conclusion by The Amber Spyglass. From its beginning in The Golden Compass (1996), set in a world of humans whose souls exist outside their bodies in the shape of animals, the series has been endlessly inventive and philosophically ambitious. The 54-year-old British author’s aim is nothing less than a retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost, this time from the side of the rebel angels, those trying to overthrow the Authority, known to most people as God. “All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity,” one rebel says. “We have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.”

Pullman is adamantly opposed not just to organized religion, but to any claim there is something better than our present existence. Earthly life is all there is, to use for good or evil. Even angels envy humans their bodies. “I use the flesh-and-blood metaphor to reverse the traditional rankings that have bedevilled Western thought for 2,000 years,” Pullman atold Maclean’s”that above our bodies there is some higher realm of pure spirit. I want to remind people that our bodies are the source of all wonder, pleasure and experience

Even the dead are better off truly dead, not trapped in the endless limbo in which the Authority imprisons them until they are freed by Pullman’s two child protagonists, Will and Lyra. More audacious yet is the moment when Will and Lyra similarly free — or, in some readers‘ minds, kill — the Authority himself. “That scene has been widely misinterpreted,” rejoins an angry Pullman. “What is happening there is that the idea of God as a benevolent despot, which has been kept alive long past its due date by those who benefit from it, is given a natural release.”

Whatever the higher symbolism of the novels, the powerful story and memorable characters mean they are read by children as young as 11″A child can read it, completely enjoy it, without realizing it would help to read Milton,” says bookseller Kahn. And whatever readers might make of Pullman’s religious views, there is no missing the forceful expression of his own moral vision, which provides the animating spirit for what is arguably the finest children’s fantasy ever written.

Even the Baudelaire orphans might hesitate to switch places with Khyber, the 11-year-old narrator of Deborah Ellis’s Governor General’s Award-winning Looking for X (Groundwood, $7.95). Khyber lives with her single mother, a former stripper, and her five-year-old twin autistic brothers in a public-housing complex in downtown Toronto. It may sound like a recipe for a dreary exercise in consciousness-raising. But Ellis, a first-time novelist and Toronto mental health counsellor, has made a slender story come alive with the incandescent character of Khyber.

A highly intelligent, somewhat naive and fiercely loyal child, Khyber was stuck with a birth name “so unspeakably horrible that I shall never speak it, not even under torture.” So she calls herself after the Afghani mountain pass she plans to visit one day. Khyber knows perfectly well that a chronic lack of money rules her life, but she more than makes do with her loving mother and powerful imagination. And with friends like X, the silent homeless woman, clearly mentally ill, who frequents a nearby park bench. When X disappears, Khyber sets out on a dangerous all-night search for her friend along Yonge Street. Looking for X has its flaws, notably an ending that seems too happy, but its young protagonist will linger in readers’ minds.

Far from the mean streets of present-day Toronto, CBC broadcaster Bill Richardson goes to the heart of timeless fairy tales with After Hamelin (Annick, $9.95). The story is begun by 101-year-old Penelope, who suddenly went deaf 90 years earlier. That was just in time to avoid the fate of all the other children of Hamelin village, serenaded away from their homes and families by the Pied Piper Local wise man Cuthbert tells the child that she can save the others with her gift of Deep Dreaming — an ability to travel in her dreams. Penelope enters into the unearthly realm where the Piper dwells, enlisting the aid of a talking cat, a three-legged dog, a skipping dragon and a singing Trolavian (a kind of giant hedgehog with wings).


Richardson has skilfully crafted two very different voices for his narration, one belonging to 11-year-old Penelope, who tells the story of the rescue, the other for her elderly self, who speaks of current events. The quest for the lost children is exciting but dreamlike, a tale of bravery, loyalty and sacrifice that seems slightly unreal. But the astringent commentary of 101-year-old Penelope is a clear-eyed marvel, full of hard-won wisdom and bittersweet memories. Unlike the child, the woman knows that pain, sorrow and loss are human constants, and it’s her story that makes After Hamelin so remarkable.

In The Secret Under My Skin (HarperCollins, $14.95), St. John’s author Janet McNaughton has written a superb novel set in 2368, in the wake of large-scale environmental and social breakdown. Captured by the repressive authorities, street child Blay Raytee begins the story in a -labour camp. It’s a fate luckier than that met by many abandoned children, summarily dispatched by death squads. By chance she is picked to be an aide to the local bio-indicator, whose sensitivity to toxins makes her the human equivalent of a canary in a coal mine. Blay’s new job brings the teenager for the first time into a world of possibilities — of learning, resistance and even love.

Novels of ecological dystopias are far from uncommon, but there are real surprises here. For one, the environment is actually recovering by this point, and it is the ruling anti-technology Commissioners, who have a vested interest in not acknowledging the improvement, who are the forces of darkness. And there is the author’s exceptionally subtle prose, powered by McNaughton’s deep anger, which comes through all the more effectively for being kept under tight rein. The sexual and physical abuse Blay experienced on the street is merely hinted at, and the work of the death squads — much of it done to harvest organs — is never openly described. Dark, complex and sophisticated indeed, The Secret Under My Skin is one of the year’s finest children’s novels.

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Amazon on fire: battle heats up over world’s largest rain forest

PARA, Brazil — The green forest hums with buzz of insects. Colorful birds soar through, the hot and humid air. The roar of a jaguar occasionally pierces the dense growth.

To Sister Dorothy Stang, those sights and sounds were home. Stang lived deep ill the heart of the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest, for more than 20 years. The 74-year-old nun from Ohio dedicated her life to preserving the rain forest from logging and ranching and to showing peasants how to work the land without destroying it.

But the calls of brilliant-colored birds and the buzz of insects weren’t the only sounds Stang heard. She knew all too well the screams of monkeys as flames burned their habitat to the ground. She also heard the taunts of land-hungry loggers and ranchers as they terrorized her and the people she was helping.

Those threats were the last thing Stang heard. As she was traveling through the rain forest to meet with peasants on February 12, gunmen, allegedly hired by a local rancher, surrounded her. Stang took out her Bible and began to read aloud to the men. After listening for a moment, they shot her in the head.


The brutality of Stang’s death sparked an international outcry that prompted Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to take action. Police captured the gunmen and hunted for the rancher accused of hiring Stang’s murderers.

Silva, who has been criticized for letting crimes against environmental activists go unpunished in the past, vowed to show the world that “in our government, there is no impunity, that the Amazon is ours and we will take control of our territory.”

Silva put nearly 19,900 of the Amazon’s 1.6 million square miles under federal environmental protection. He also banned new logging and land clearing for six months in the Amazon’s Para state, where Stang was killed.

The decrees allow local residents to remain in the protected area and tap rubber, pick fruits and nuts, and extract other regenerating goods from the rain forest. But the restrictions left local loggers and ranchers in limbo.

Land Wars

The ranchers were quick to protest. They argued that it was unfair for the government to jeopardize their livelihoods because of a murder that they had nothing to do with.

“We are not against having conservation areas, but [the government] can’t just come up with them like that,” said Francisco Alberto de Castro, head of a group that represents cattle ranchers in Para. “Now the ranchers who own land inside the reserves don’t know what to expect,” he told The Associated Press.

The ranchers point out that their work is crucial to Brazil’s financial success. The country is the world’s largest beef exporter and the second-largest soy exporter, after the United States.

As the number of cattle has grown, the Amazon has slowly started to disappear. In 10 years, as increasing amounts of land were cleared with fire for cattle ranching, the region lost an area of forest the size of Washington state, according to the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Indonesia. “For each new cow, the region lost … about 2.5 acres of forest–about the size of a soccer field,” said David Kaimowitz of CIFOR.

Kaimowitz and other environmentalists say the damage is irreparable. “In a nutshell, cattle ranches are making mincemeat out of Brazil’s Amazon rain forests,” he said.

Sinking Feeling

That destruction is dangerous for the entire world, scientists say. Sometimes called “the world’s lung,” the Amazon is vital to the preservation of the planet. The rain forest is what environmentalists call a “sink”–an area that absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits, because it has billions of trees. Carbon dioxide is one of several greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat close to Earth, contributing to global warming. Rain forests absorb extra carbon dioxide that is produced by cars and factories around the world.

Experts say that logging, ranching, and development have destroyed nearly a quarter of the Amazon and that the destruction is slowly reversing the rain forest’s sink effect.

In 1994, Brazil produced 3 percent of the worldwide total of carbon dioxide–making it one of the world’s top 10 polluters. Deforestation in the Amazon accounted for 70 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions.

“Considering that data from 1994 already showed a worrisome situation, it is obvious that things are much worse today,” said Marcelo Furtado, campaign director for Greenpeace. “We are reaching the point of [10,000 to 11,500 square miles] of forest destruction. Urgent action must be taken.”

Greenpeace is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the environment. It was founded in 1971 by a group of Canadian environmentalists protesting U.S. nuclear weapons testing in Alaska. Today, the group has about 3 million members in more than 30 countries. The group strives to end nuclear weapons testing, eliminate toxic chemicals, prevent whaling, protect ancient forests, and encourage sustainable trade. The organization uses nonviolent (though often confrontational) tactics to draw attention to its causes. For example, to prevent whaling, Greenpeace will drive its boats between a whaling vessel and its prey. In 1985, Greenpeace members planned to use their ship Rainbow Warrior to protest French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. France blew up the ship, killing a Greenpeace photographer. The ship got its name from a North American Cree Indian legend in which humanity’s greed has made the Earth sick. A tribe of warriors known as the Warriors of the Rainbow rise up to protect the planet.


The Amazon rain forest may be shrinking today, but nearly a century ago it loomed larger than life. From 1890 to 1920, it held the key to a treasure that brought fame and fortune to Brazil–the rubber tree.

Amazon natives had long known about Brazilian rubber trees. They used rubber to waterproof their shoes and to caulk holes in their canoes. But it wasn’t until 1839, when American Charles Goodyear invented a process to prevent rubber from reacting to temperature changes, that the rest of the world reached for rubber.

Foreigners flocked to Brazil’s forests to cash in on the sudden rubber boom. Rubber barons hired natives to collect the rubber. The rubber tappers’ lives were bleak; they worked long, hard hours and made little money in return. (The man shown at right was a rubber tapper in the 1920s.)

The price of rubber skyrocketed as global demand grew. Many rubber barons used their resulting wealth to transform Manaus, a small town on the Amazon River, into the bustling capital of Amazonia.

Rubber barons had more money than they knew what to do with. One had a lion, a yacht, a motorboat, a gibson acoustic guitar on the world, and uniformed servants. Another built a palace to house his racehorses. The barons liked to show off their wealth by sending their laundry to Paris.

At the time, U.S. steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie was rumored to have said with remorse, “I ought to have chosen rubber.”


Carnegie was right to stick with steel, however; the rubber boom was not to last. In 1876, a British spy secretly sent seeds from Brazilian rubber trees to England. The seeds were planted in some British colonies, including Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The first Asian rubber trees flowered in 1881. The trees were grown on commercial plantations–a dramatic change from the Amazon, where the trees grew naturally in dense brush and stood miles apart.

The Asian plantations quickly produced the same amount of rubber as Brazil, but at a dramatically cheaper cost, slashing the price. By 1922, more than 90 percent of the world’s rubber came from Asia. Brazil’s rubber boom was a bust.


It doesn’t rain cats and dogs in this rain forest; it rains frogs! Coqui frogs (right) are endemic to this area. When the air is humid, the frogs climb to the treetops. Some find predators lying in wait, so the frogs jump and float weightlessly to the forest floor. The “frequent flyers” aren’t the forest’s only attraction. More than 200 species of plants (26 of which are found only here) and more than 130 species of animals live in this tropical rain forest, which is the only forest of its kind in the U.S. National Forest System. It’s also one of the oldest protected forests in the Western Hemisphere. King Alfonso of Spain set the land aside in 1876. The forest is named after an Indian spirit, Yuquiyu, which means “forest of clouds.” The name is appropriate–more than 160 billion gallons of rainwater fall on the forest each year. What is the name of this rain forest?

Get Talking

Ask students: Where is the Amazon rain forest? Why is it famous? Tell students that there is a debate over how the Amazon should be used. Some people want to use the rain forest for ranching and farming, and others want to preserve the rain forest as it is. Ask students: What might be some benefits and drawbacks of each plan?

Notes Behind the News

  • A rain forest is a dense evergreen forest that occupies a tropical region with an annual rainfall of at least 100 inches.
  • Trees absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen into the air. The process helps keep an atmospheric balance.
  • Humans have thrown off that balance by burning fossil fuels and producing excess carbon dioxide, which traps heat that otherwise would escape into space. Scientists believe the rise in global temperatures over the past century was largely caused by manmade emissions. They predict higher temperatures and climate disruptions in the future.
  • Brazil has some of the strictest environmental legislation in the world. Even before Sister Dorothy Stang’s death, 80 percent of the country’s densely forested private lands and banks of rivers were protected. However, the laws are often poorly enforced, in part because it is difficult to police an immense rain forest. Greenpeace estimates that about 90 percent of the wood logged in the Amazon’s Para state is illegally cut.
  • Currently, there is a mud road cut through the Amazon, known as the BR-163. It is impassable to heavy trucks much of the year because of rain. The Brazilian government plans to turn the road into a superhighway to make it easier for Amazon farmers and ranchers to transport goods. However, ecologists say paving the BR-163 could lead to the clearing of up to 70,000 square miles of forest over 30 years.

Doing More

Trees aren’t the only species in the Amazon rain forest that may become endangered if logging and ranching continue to expand. Have each student research and write a report about a different endangered animal in the Amazon. The report should include why the animal is endangered and what is being done to help protect it.

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A complex alliance between human beings and birds of prey

Few introducing word

About twenty people stood where a gravel road ended at the gate to a cattle pasture, watching a female peregrine falcon pump her long, slender wings and sweep in wide, climbing circles above them. An early-March sunset silhouetted the low mountain ridges around Dillon, Montana, and lit up the falcon’s clay-orange breast each time she swung toward it. The peregrine’s spiraling flight lifted her higher and higher into the sky, until the only detail visible was the low sun flashing silver on the undersides of her wings.

The people watching were almost all members of the Montana Falconers Association, gathered for their annual spring meet. The meet had been organized by Brian Mutch, who works for the Peregrine Fund, the organization largely responsible for repopulating the United States with endangered peregrine falcons. Mutch had been charged with rehabilitating this particular bird after she was found wounded by a gunshot the previous fall.

As the falcon soared, the evening sky filled with the fluttering forms of ducks that wanted to land in a creek bottom across the field from the falconers or in the pasture itself, where a local rancher had left alfalfa for his cattle. The ducks had spotted the falcon from a great distance and were careful to fly above the raptor. Most ducks–in fact, most birds–can escape a falcon in a tail chase; falcons are most effective when they stoop down on prey. The peregrine ignored the flying ducks and circled in the sky–“waiting on”–watching the people on the ground.

Mutch had spotted five mallards feeding in a shallow swale in the field between the end of the road and the creek bottom. When the peregrine had climbed to about a thousand feet, Mutch and his brother, Dale, charged across the field, dodging befuddled cattle, whooping both to flush the ducks and to draw the falcon’s attention. The mallards shot into the air and fled in a tight sprint to the south.

High above, the falcon tilted earthward, rowed her wings to power her stoop, and then poured herself down through the sky. Wind ripped audibly through her feathers, and the small brass bells tied to her feet whistled. When the ducks saw the falcon free-falling toward them, the small flock split. A drake hesitated, unsure which pair to follow, and the prey had selected itself. The falcon slammed the duck with an impact that sounded like a baseball bat swatting a down pillow. Sinking her talons deep into the duck’s back, the peregrine rode her prey to the ground with little loss of velocity.

A strange oooohhh of awe rose from the falconers gathered at the end of the road, one that said they appreciated the kill but felt it a little, too. Mutch ran to where the two birds had come down, worried that the falcon had hit the ground too hard and might be injured. He found her perched atop the duck, stripping feathers and skin from his breast with twitching jerks of her sharp beak.

Mutch picked up both the duck and the falcon. Then, after ripping off one of the duck’s legs and holding it in front of the falcon until she began to eat, Mutch drew the rest of the duck away. Usually the falconer will reward his bird by allowing it to eat part of the warm carcass, often the head, and then supplement its meal with some frozen meat. Once the bird is separated from its kill, the falconer will bag the prey and take it home for supper. Brian Mutch dined on duck that night.


Falconry, at heart, is about what birds do naturally. Perhaps the sport’s greatest attraction is its lifting of veils, so to speak, on the nature of killing and prey, and the perception it creates for the falconer that he is somehow one step closer to the workings of the raptor’s world. That the falcons, hawks, and eagles used in the sport are calm, poised killers that employ thrilling aerial abilities in slaying their victims adds to the fascination. Falconers become attached to their birds with a passion that nonfalconers simply can’t imagine. Two weeks after the Dillon meet Brian Mutch sat in a bar in Ovando, Montana, talking about the lengths he’d go to for his other bird, a captive-bred peregrine named June that he has had for nine years. “I’ve often wondered, if I got stuck in my truck somewhere, like in a snowstorm, how I could shave off pieces of my skin and keep her going,” Mutch said, with a chuckle that did not mean he was kidding. Many falconers have a fascination with birds of prey that runs too deep for them to understand fully. They speak of seeing falcons in their dreams and remember spending hours as children gazing at hawks on telephone poles. “It’s crazy,” said a falconer at the Dillon meet. “I hope I get over it someday.”

A falconer’s involvement with his bird is constantly reinforced by the amount of time they spend together. “Manning” a bird, or teaching it to hunt from the fist and return to a lure, requires daily interaction. Once the bird has been taught to accept its human hunting partner, maintaining it in effective flying condition demands constant attention.

Unlike dogs and horses, a wild-caught falcon is not submissive (although a captive-bred one might be somewhat so). Falconers do not physically intimidate their birds into compliance the way a dog trainer might. The falconer’s main tool is hunger. Falconry is based on convincing a bird that the falconer is its best meal ticket. This is not to say that falconers starve their birds; that would be counterproductive, because raptors must maintain their weight within a delicate range–a matter of a few ounces–in order to fly efficiently.

Ultimately, a falconer doesn’t hunt a bird; the falcon recognizes and agrees to hunt with a consistent producer of prey. Every time a bird leaves the fist, it is free to migrate–to fly away forever. In the early days of falconry on this continent, a number of falconers incorporated that fact into their sport. Falcons, particularly peregrines, were trapped in the spring, manned, and flown throughout the fall and winter. When migratory urges began welling within the birds the following spring, they were released back into the wild. Although that practice still exists, over the past thirty years it has become less common.

Hunting with raptors has been practiced throughout the world for millennia, but in the United States the sport, for all intents and purposes, had its beginnings in the 1930s. Nowadays, hunting should be supported by modern devices to enhance the range of observation, such as binocular and rangefinders. Especially for bird hungting, using of rangefinders is indispensable (check Top Rangefinder for the best rangefinder reviews) Early American settlers had no time to train birds to fly after game, particularly when birds were far less effective than guns, traps, nets, and even dogs when it came to putting meat on the table.


Another impediment to falconry in America was the settlers’ perceptions of the birds themselves. Falcons, hawks, and eagles, like bears, wolves, and foxes, were predators competing with settlers for prey, and they raided domestic stockyards and chicken coops. As such, they were to be killed on sight. Change in this attitude was a long time coming. Well into this century states paid bounties on raptors. As late as the 1960s it was illegal in some states to keep certain raptors captive but perfectly acceptable to kill them, as long as you left the carcass in the field. As the recovered peregrine that Mutch took to Dillon illustrates, raptors are still sometimes shot.

When Americans began to practice falconry, they adopted ancient training practices and language. In strict falconry jargon “falcon” refers only to a female peregrine falcon. A male peregrine, typically a third smaller than the female, is a “tiercel.” The female gyrfalcon is a “gyrfalcon,” while the male goes by “gerkin.” How a bird came into captivity further defines it. An “eyass” is a chick taken from a wild nest, or aerie, and raised in captivity. If the bird was taken just as it was beginning to stray from the nest but before it learned how to make extended flights, it is called a “brancher.” Birds caught in the wild when they are older than that are “passagers,” or “passage birds,” because they are generally taken during their first migration. If such a bird has reached its adult plumage, it is a “haggard.” Should its first molt occur in captivity, it is “intermewed.” Purists would claim that only someone who flies true falcons–peregrines, gyrfalcons, and other raptors of the genus falco–is worthy of the name “falconer,” and that those who fly hawks, eagles, and owls should be called “austringers,” although this bit of snobbery has fallen out of fashion among mainstream American falconers.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes kindled an interest in falconry with his 1920 National Geographic article “Falconry, The Sport of Kings,” and Colonel A. E. “Luff” Meredith, a career military aviator, is generally credited with bringing falconry to America. But it was the Craighead twins, Frank Jr. and John (now well known for their grizzly-bear research), who, beginning in the mid-1930s, did the most to spread popular interest in falconry. While still in high school the Craigheads met Meredith in Washington, D.C., where he talked to them about training wild raptors. At the time, the brothers had been shooting birds to satisfy an interest in taxidermy, but falconry captured their fancy. The Craigheads began working with Cooper’s hawks and quickly moved to peregrines, prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks–even owls and ospreys. In 1937, while attending Pennsylvania State University (where they flew their falcons on the university golf course), the brothers co- authored an article in National Geographic about falconry.

Five years later they published another piece in the magazine. Those two articles created a foundation for American interest in the sport. But the shaping of modern American falconry would take another thirty years, and its fortunes were intimately bound up with those of the peregrine falcon, which the pesticide DDT nearly brought to extinction.

Peregrine falcons began rapidly disappearing from this country in the 1950s, and DDT was not initially implicated. Indeed, falconers were blamed at least in part for the dwindling of the peregrine population. Prior to 1970 no effective captive-breeding programs existed, and most falcons used in falconry were taken from the wild. It was assumed that a vast black market existed for illegally trapped birds.

Certainly there are now and were then bad falconers. In 1984 Operation Falcon, a major U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sting, nabbed a number of falconers for various felony violations. Operation Falcon proved to be a wildly controversial episode in the annals of falconry: it engendered bad feelings between falconers and law-enforcement agencies which persist to this day. The operation was fraught with mismanagement, falconers claim. For example, they say, the Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to violate the spirit of the laws it was purportedly trying to uphold by allowing agents to steal then-protected anatum peregrine eggs from a nest for use as bait. In court Operation Falcon lost de facto entrapment arguments, found almost all its felony charges reduced to misdemeanors, and failed to prove the existence of an organized black market.

The truth is that the falconers’ take of wild birds was probably biologically inconsequential. From 1965 to 1970 it became evident to biologists that the real villain was DDT. As it happens, falconers turned out to be largely responsible for the remarkable recovery of the peregrine falcon. In 1970 Tom Cade, a falconer and at the time a professor of biology at Cornell University, started the Peregrine Fund, which orchestrated what has been one of the more successful re-introductions to date of an endangered species in this country. Where others–including the Fish and Wildlife Service–had failed, Cade succeeded, largely because the birds he used for breeding stock were young birds donated by fellow falconers and were comfortable with captivity. The older birds used by the Fish and Wildlife Service would not breed.


“A lot of the information that led to the conclusion that a continental decline had occurred came from falconers who had been in the field, watching nests and keeping records,” Cade told me not long ago. “Falconers were also influential in captive-breeding and release techniques. Their biggest contribution to the Peregrine Fund was to donate birds–either lending or giving them–so that we could use them as breeding stock. About half of the birds we used came from falconers.”

In addition to saving the wild peregrine, the Peregrine Fund’s captive-breeding program ensured the availability of birds for falconers. Captive breeding–along with the advent of radio telemetry–has also influenced the sport in other ways.

Traditional training methods call for leaving birds hooded or in dark rooms for great lengths of time, to keep them calm. But the advent of captive-bred birds has led to new approaches. Chicks are often given the run of the house. This dispels their notion that every time they see a human being, they will be fed. It also deepens the bond between man and bird. Mutch’s peregrine June, which he raised from a chick, now believes that Mutch is her mate and will actively court him, sticking her beak in the dirt and raising her tail high while loudly sounding the kak-kak-kak of her mating call.

Radio telemetry has allowed falconers to keep their birds longer, further increasing opportunities for learning and decreasing pressure on wild populations by nearly eliminating the need for trapping new birds. Prior to telemetry, a falcon that pursued prey for miles before killing it–or giving up and roosting–would probably not be found again. But now a falconer can track his bird and lure it back to him. Telemetry has also changed the kinds of flights falconers will attempt with their birds, making possible the pursuit of challenging quarry like sage grouse and prairie chickens, which are likely to fly a long way off before a falcon can catch them.

The North American Falconers Association, founded in 1961, now claims 2,600 members (an additional 1,100 falconers are believed to operate independent of the organization). NAFA estimates that the number of participants has increased over the past decade by about 10 percent. “We’re growing at a very slow pace, which is what we want,” says the president of the organization, Ken Felix, a veterinarian from McKean, Pennsylvania.

Owing largely to NAFA, falconry is probably the most highly regulated wildlife-related sport in existence. “Falconry is hard to get into and it’s kind of designed that way,” Mutch says. “It’s designed to discriminate against people who aren’t totally committed to it. You get a lot of people who want a glamorous pet– who want to walk around with a falcon on their fist. Falcons are not pets.”

Felix points to a traditional stronghold of falconry, Great Britain, to illustrate what NAFA does not want to see happen in this country. “The trouble in England right now is, to be a falconer you only have to plunk down fifteen pounds for a license. As a result, the sport is deteriorating. Incompetent people are doing it. I’m not elitist, but I think the situation we have in the U.S. is appropriate. We are keeping the sport generally away from casually interested people. We now have regulations. They’re restrictive, but we want them restrictive. They’re not hardship. Anybody who wants to put forth the effort can do it.”

The effort is a serious undertaking. To become a master falconer in the United States a person must pass a hundred-question exam and then spend two years as an apprentice to a licensed sponsor and five years as a general falconer before applying for master falconer’s status. Each state regulates the kinds and number of birds a falconer may fly at each stage of his progression, and may inspect mews and breeding facilities randomly. NAFA has been instrumental in developing legislation to protect birds of prey, and is actively involved in raptor restoration and rehabilitation programs. NAFA publications keep falconers up to date on developing techniques in the care and training of raptors.

NAFA’s concern with standards indicates an awareness that all responsible falconers have about their sport: despite falconry’s basis in natural acts, it is the hand of man from which the falcon flies. A falconer’s error can bring this home with gritty reality. The day before Mutch’s peregrine made its stoop at the ducks outside Dillon, a female gyrfalcon was killed while chasing sage grouse. The gyrfalcon had followed a grouse into cover and caught it in sagebrush. While she held the bird, trying to figure out how to extract and kill it, a golden eagle slammed the gyrfalcon from behind.

Jeff King, then a forty-year-old registered nurse and veterinary student, had trapped the immature gyrfalcon in the Palouse region of eastern Washington five months before. “A wild bird like this would probably not have allowed itself to be killed by another predator unless it had gotten pretty hungry,” King said weeks later, still upset by the incident. He was coming to terms with the notion that he had miscalculated, had made the falcon hungry enough to ignore her natural caution, and had cost the bird her life.

Even captive-bred raptors revert almost completely to instinct in the act of hunting: nobody trains peregrines to break the neck of their prey immediately after bringing it to the ground, yet they all do. Falconers simply couldn’t do much to improve a falcon’s efficiency in killing; the human being’s work is geared toward gaining acceptance from the bird and taking it into situations where it can act naturally. Each time he succeeds, a falconer edges closer to fully understanding those acts and what they mean.


Hunting with birds of prey is an ancient sport, but it did not become popular in the US until the 1930s, and it is highly regulated. Falconers helped to repopulate falcons in the 1970s after the use of DDT made them an endangered species.

The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers


Writers take to Louisiana like alligators to a bayou. I think it’s because Louisiana is our most exotic state (on the mainland, anyway). It has a French history, a Cajun culture, feudal politics and a landscape about three-fourths marsh. Louisiana doesn’t look or act like other states. I believe it was A.J. Liebling who wrote that the main difference was that Louisiana lacked a tradition of democracy. But as Marc Reisner shows us in Game Wars, nature too sets Louisiana apart. “It is, or was, the best habitat forwildlife in the entire world,” he writes. Living off the land is still not only possible but practical. Big-time poaching flourishes as well, and it’s the poachers and their pursuers, particularly a colorful, arrogant, profane and off-and-on successful federal undercover ‘agent Reisner calls “Dave Hall,” who are the subject of this free-Swinging book,

“Hall” is what he’s called here, but I hope that’s not his real name; Reisner doesn’t say. If it is his real name, I hope he’s made a midlife career switch to something like silk farming or telemarketing because this book is going to blow his cover and probably jeopardize his life. There is money enough in alligator hides and illegal game fish and other contraband wildlife products that murder is not uncommon. Hall, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement branch, spends his time conjuring up undercover schemes to nail the entrepreneurs who get obscenely rich trading in illicit wildlife.

Reisner’s book is both a page-turning narrative and an editorial on the decimation of nature by greed, but it’s mostly the former. Hall is an irresistible character. When we first meet him he is admiring a flock of geese and on his way to meet a Cajun outlaw known as “A. J.” whom he has converted into an undercover operative. Later he demands to know how many alligators the Cajun poached on his best night. The man reluctantly concedes that his record was 114, at an average length of five feet and an average take of $8 a foot. He became Hall’s ally after the mysterious deaths of several cohorts–possibly at the hands of competing poachers. Now, Hall says with a smile, here he is taking a notorious [ alligator poacher to lunch. “Former alligator poacher,” the man corrects him.

“I hope that’s true,” says Hall. Hall is happy in his work. He loves chasing bad guys, Wiring himself with a $5,000 tape recorder and wheedling incriminating conversation out of them. When the trade in illegal ivory boomed in the 1970s he volunteered to lead a sting aimed at nabbing the big-ticket traders in Alaska who deal in ivory from walrus tusks. Good ole boy Dave poses as a new-rich Texan in the oillease game who hankers to sell ivory to his friends. His customary cool erodes only when he finds himself at the mercy of an Alaskan version of Hell’s Angels known as the Brothers (but I’m not telling what happens).

At one point he submits to a strip search by an ivory dealer nicknamed “Sealskin Charlie” who has his doubts about ole Dave–who has already secondguessed Charlie and ditched his recorder in good time. The Alaska caper is the best reading in the book. I’ll never feel the same about the town of Nome after reading Reisner’s description (it looked like a “large container spill … the world capital of the International Quonset Hut style … the landscape was mildly undulating tundra, without trees to set the limits of sight”). A greater contrast with southern Louisiana is impossible to imagine.

  • The book includes one segment on gator poaching, one on the ivory trade, a third on a lucrative racket in the tasty fish known as sacalait or crappie and a fourth titled “Loss,” which chronicles the escalating disappearance of Louisiana’s freshwater marshes as a result of shortsighted dam building and oil company canals.

Reisner recounts all this in a goodhumored gonzo style laced with the occasional memorable image. One afternoon he is permitted to accompany Hall and another undercover agent as they cruise the Mississippi River with a duck poacher they’re out to snare. The poacher allows as how he’d kill a man if the money was right. “Most of us would,” he insists. “Tell me that ain’t so.” Dave Hall affably agrees. All Reisner could think about at that moment, however, was how he would have liked to take the poacher and “hold his head in duck dung until he had been asphyxiated.”

Donald Dale Jackson lives and writes in the wilds of Connecticut.

A messy lesson: an oil spill turns up the heat on environmental issues


News of a massive oil spill and fire affecting the KomiNeft pipeline in Siberia reached Western media outlets on Oct 30, 1994, via a US Dept of Energy report. Gulf Canada Resources Ltd, which owns a minority interest in the Siberian venture KomiArcticOil, denied responsibility for the spill.

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When Gulf Canada Resources Ltd. decided to make a relatively modest $25-million investment in the remote Komi oilfields near the Arctic Circle in Russia in 1991, the Calgary-based company clearly did not anticipate that it would some day become mired in a major environmental disaster. Rather, Gulf Canada executives saw it as an opportunity to investigate a rich, new source of oil, while helping to transform the old Communist system into a market economy. Now, however, because of ruptures in a badly corroded crude-oil pipeline, Gulf Canada is involved with an oil spill–first reported by the U.S. department of energy on Oct. 30–that, according to some estimates, may be more than eight times greater than the 240,000-barrel Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

Russian officials say that 78,500 barrels of oil have spilled, but the U.S. energy department says that the spill could be as much as 2.1 million barrels. Gulf Canada spokesman John Sparks in Calgary says that the company “has no idea” how much oil has spread across the ecologically fragile Arctic tundra. Indeed, Gulf Canada maintains that, since it owns only a 25-per-cent stake in the KomiArcticOil production company and has no interest in the KomiNeft pipeline, it actually has no responsibility for the spill. “The problem with this story is that it is not a Gulf story,” insisted Sparks last week. “We had no influence over the operation of that pipeline.”


While Gulf executives may be intent upon distancing themselves from their Russian investment, at a time when global markets are more and more interconnected by trade and investment ties, that is becoming increasingly difficult to do. In the decade since a chemical leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed 1,600 people, public awareness about environmental issues has soared. That acute concern has, in turn, exerted pressure on governments in developed countries to introduce tougher laws for companies operating within their jurisdictions.

But even though a host of stringent environmental standards and new technologies have been introduced in Canada and other countries, there are still wide discrepancies in the international community. Since the fall of communism in Russia and the Eastern Bloc, for example, many severe, industrial environmental problems have gradually surfaced. Even though Western investors and partners are supposed to contribute their environmental savvy–as well as their capital–to business joint ventures in emerging markets, it does not always work that way. Environmentalists insist that Gulf Canada’s response to the Russian spill is a common corporate attitude. “Everyone [involved with the project] knew about the condition of that pipeline,” Steve Shallhorn, campaign director for Greenpeace Canada in Toronto, said. “Gulf just decided to take a risk. They took a risk with the environment and they lost.”

Even in developed nations, major changes in environmental attitudes–and practices–have not come easily, especially in the resource sectors where such costly investment in new technology and training directly increases the cost of production. For example, since 1988, despite the cash crunch caused by the recession, Canada’s pulp-and-paper industry has had to spend almost $4 billion to renovate its mills to meet much tougher pollution laws. But at the same time as those expenses are mounting, all North American companies are confronting unprecedented competition in mining, lumber and energy sectors from such developing economies as Russia, Mexico and China, where there are fewer environmental regulations–and less organized environmental lobby power. Judith Marshall, a representative for the international affairs department of the United Steelworkers of America in Toronto, says that the union is about to launch a study to determine whether Canadian mining companies lower their environmental standards when they operate in less-developed countries. Marshall said that isolated anecdotal reports suggest “that as soon as they go to a less-regulated environment, they slip back a century and go right back to their old practices.”

To date, many industries have been persuaded to alter their practices only because of aggressive campaigning by environmental groups. In the forest-products sector, protesters have successfully managed to rally public support for their battle against clear-cutting, in part because of the highly visible and unsightly consequences of such logging practices. In addition, groups such as Greenpeace have begun to organize revolts among end users who are willing to boycott paper products from companies that do not follow “greenforest practices. Shallhorn says that the Toronto Board of Education–which spends an estimated $800,000 on paper products annually–passed a motion last month not to buy paper produced from wood that comes from clear-cut forests. Some European paper buyers are also following a similar policy.

As a result of such campaigns–and tougher legislation–companies like MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. of Vancouver, Canada’s largest forestry company, have modified many of their traditional techniques. In an effort to protect salmon spawning streams from possible contamination, MacMillan Bloedel no longer clear-cuts trees right to the water’s edge. And instead of attempting to plant manmade forests with only one or two types of commercially valuable trees, it relies on natural regeneration, in which the forest is harvested carefully so that the site is damaged as little as possible and natural vegetation is regrown as quickly as possible. Said Linda Coady, the company’s first vice-president of environmental affairs, “I guess our initial reaction to much of this is that we couldn’t do it because it was too expensive. We felt that the pendulum was swinging too much to the other side. But now our attitude is that we’re going to find out if we can.”

More recently, in an attempt to get ahead of public opinion instead of merely reacting to it, the forest industry has launched its own initiative to set international standards for so-called sustainable forestry. The industry’s stated goal is to ensure that the levels of harvesting are expected to be consistent with a forest’s ability to regenerate and maintain its rich variety of life. Nevertheless, this goal will be difficult to achieve because standards will have to be set for each of the different kinds of forest in the world–and because of the many countries, companies and interest groups that will have to reach a consensus.

Another segment of the forestry business, the Canadian pulp-and-paper industry, which traditionally relies on chlorine to bleach the pulp, has also dramatically improved some of its polluting practices. Pierre Lachance, director of media relations for the Montreal-based Canadian Pulp and Paper Association, says that, as a result of the $4 billion the industry has spent to meet most provincial governments’ tough new anti-polluting legislation, the water that comes out of most mills is substantially cleaner than it was before. He says that the total output of the extremely toxic dioxins and furans from pulp mills in Canada has fallen to six grams a year, from 350 grams in 1988. In terms of recycling, the industry has also made great strides. In 1994, the domestic industry became the largest waste-paper importer in the world. It has done this to meet the recycled-paper content regulations imposed on its biggest customers, U.S. newspapers.

The domestic mining industry has also had to undertake significant measures to contend with stringent new laws governing, among other things, so-called mine reclamation requirements. When rock that has been crushed to extract ore is left exposed to the elements, it gradually breaks down and produces an acid that can contaminate nearby streams. In the past, companies used to be able to close a mine site and have almost no responsibility for what happened after they left. However, George Miller, president of the Mining Association of Canada in Ottawa, says that several provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, have now introduced new laws that require mines–even before they open–to outline how they will deal with the acid drainage that will be produced at the mine site for decades to come. In one precedent-setting case, British Columbia forced a subsidiary of mining giant Placer Dome Inc. to deposit $30 million with the provincial government to cover the cost of future cleanups. Such aggressive measures have prodded the industry to come up with innovative new solutions to address its pollution problem and to reduce its cleanup costs. “We whine from time to time,” said Miller, “but then we try to get on with the job. We know that no one cares if the mining industry whines.”

Although resource companies may be most directly affected by evolving standards, governments of all levels have also begun to extend environmental liability to any parties that may have a financial interest in a polluting company–including lenders. In 1991, eight major Canadian banks got an expensive lesson in environmental protection when they incurred more than $65 million in losses after Kemtec Petrochemical Corp. of Montreal went bankrupt. When the Quebec government threatened to make the banks pay the $80-million fee to clean up the Kemtec refinery site, they elected to walk away from their financial claim on Kemtec’s assets.


As a result of that case and others, Carol Ann Bartlett, an assistant general counsel with the Royal Bank of Canada who works on environmental risk issues, says that the banks now require most borrowers to disclose any possible environmental liabilities. If potential problems show up, the bank may require follow-up with detailed, independent site investigations or even more detailed studies.

One of the most common things that the banks watch for is underground fuel storage tanks that may deteriorate and release oil that could eventually contaminate groundwater. This ecological hazard can occur not only with large companies, but also with small businesses that are built on old corner gas-station sites, and even with homeowners who have underground residential storage tanks on their property. Added Bartlett: “I understand that some loans are definitely being turned down, at least in part because of environmental concerns.”

Meanwhile, in the case of the Russian oil spill, Gulf Canada faces a problem not unlike that confronted by the banks. It has invested $25 million in the oil venture, but it has yet to take a single dollar of profit out of Russia–even though the Russian government could decide to hold foreign oil companies liable for at least a portion of the cleanup costs. John Sparks defends Gulf’s participation on both environmental and political grounds. He says that Gulf’s involvement did improve environmental conditions at the oil-drilling site. Furthermore, he says that the company’s activities in Russia contributed to the country’s economic and political development. “If we want their revolution to work, it behooves Westerners to invest,” said Sparks. “The Russians can’t do it without Western capital and expertise.” But without more attention to the environment, they apparently cannot do it with them either.

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The crown jewels


Canada’s national parks are a great source of pride to Canadians, who consider them a strong symbol of national identity. The National Parks Act protects all 36 parks and plans are to create more so that all of Canada’s ecologically defined natural regions are represented.

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Standing alone against the Pacific, 160 km off the coast of British Columbia, the islands of South Moresby take a frightful beating. High winds, heavy rains and relentless surf pound the western shores, leaving trees bent backwards and beaches scoured. Despite the elements, Haida call the remote archipelago Gwaii Haanas–“islands of wonder and beauty”–with good reason. On calm days and in protected backwaters away from the ocean’s roar, the trickle of a creek, the caw of a raven or the splash of an otter are all that intrude on the deep, soothing quiet. Multicolored sea stars light up low tide, and in season, giant black bears fish the sparkling rivers for spawning salmon. And on the moss-covered floor of the rain forest, the soft, moist, oxygen-rich air caresses skin ravaged by city life and tantalizes nostrils seared by pollution. The wildness of the place is thrilling. Its beauty is humbling. It is a spa for the spirit.

And it is supposed to stay that way. Gwaii Haanas is a national park reserve, one of 36 crown jewels of the Canadian landscape that have been given the protection of the National Parks Act so that they will be around to thrill future generations with the wonder of Canada at its unspoiled best. Spanning 75,000 square miles of mountain ranges and grassy plains, great rivers and frozen tundra, the park system delights Canadians and lures visitors from around the globe: 25 per cent of the nearly 15 million national park visitors in 1994 were foreigners. The parks host bird-watchers and ice climbers, golfers and canoeists, picnickers and backpackers, seniors on nature tours and kids on skis. In a recent Environics poll asking 2,026 Canadians to name the most important symbols of their national identity, national parks finished a close third behind the flag and the anthem. “Our parks system,” says Jocelyne Daw, executive director of the Canadian Parks Partnership, “is the envy of the world.”

But the legislative shield of the parks act is no guarantee that paradise will be protected. Popular campsites and trails at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on Vancouver Island were so badly trampled during the late 1980s that park managers had to implement quota and reservation systems. At Banff, commercial development in the country’s oldest and most visited national park has infringed on important wildlife habitat. Thanks to a 1992 court decision, the clear-cut logging that was tearing apart northern Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park was halted, but biologists there have another problem to solve–a brucellosis-infected bison herd. And in Quebec, the long-awaited beluga whale sanctuary at the confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence rivers is bogged down in negotiations between Ottawa and the province’s separatist government. “There is no way in the current political environment that I can see another national park being established in Quebec,” says Arlin Hackman, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Endangered Spaces Campaign. “There may be joint Quebec-Canada protected areas, but not with the National Parks Act as sole legal authority. That will not fly.”


Beyond those issues is an even greater challenge–completing the park system itself. Parks Canada is committed to gathering samples of each of the country’s 39 defined natural regions within park boundaries; the system now embraces only 23. The process of getting the other 16 ecologically and geographically defined regions into the fold has been slow, partly because of interminable intergovernment negotiations, unresolved land claims and a shortage of cash. Then, there are unforeseen difficulties. The Mealy Mountains park proposal in Labrador, for instance, straddles land that is geologically similar to Voisey Bay, site of a recently discovered nickel deposit; as a result, Parks Canada officials are concerned that it may become more difficult to convince companies with staked interests within the proposed boundaries to sign away their mineral rights.

Still, park officials are optimistic that the system will be completed by the year 2000, a deadline imposed by the federal government in 1990. “There’s a fairly positive climate among the provinces and native groups with whom we are dealing,” says Michael Porter, acting director general of national parks. “You never know what will happen with the various provincial elections, but so far, so good.”

It was the discovery of mineral hot springs that first drew attention to Banff. Canadian Pacific Railway employees uncovered the springs in the early 1880s, but their application to purchase the property was rejected by the federal government. Instead, in 1885, Ottawa created a 10-square-mile reserve around the site, saying the springs “promise to be of great sanitary advantage to the public.” Ottawa added Yoho and Glacier parks the next year, and the national parks system was born.

Today, Banff symbolizes the major debate over national parks: should they be preserved in their pristine wilderness state, or made more accessible for recreation and tourism? Unquestionably, Banff possesses some of the world’s most dramatic wilderness, but it also bears the imprint of its birth, at a time when parks were “attractions,” not protected wildernesses. The once-rustic townsite now resounds with international chatter–French, Japanese and German mixing with a wide range of English accents. With breathtaking snow-capped mountains towering above and the Bow River winding alongside, Banff Avenue is a string of hotels and innumerable curio shops, hair salons and boutiques selling $600 handbags–not to mention restaurants offering everything from fast food to sushi.

And that is exactly how many people like it: all the comforts of home–all the commercialism of a resort–in the greatest of outdoors. Betty Jo and Richard Harned, a retired couple visiting from Decatur, Ill., welcomed the opportunity to stock up their motor home. “We stopped to do our shopping and laundry,” says Betty Jo. “It’s great to have all the facilities.” But Brian Borgartz, visiting from Essex, England, is saddened by the development. Borgartz, 60, first visited Banff 30 years ago and recently brought his wife to see it, too. The town, he says, is unrecognizable–shop after shop selling the same souvenirs. “I’m a bit disappointed, I suppose, really,” he says. “But then, nothing stays the same, does it?”

Those conflicting sentiments mimic the debate that rages in Banff. Although park defenders claim that Banff is too often the focus of criticism, and is not given credit for its vast and relatively unblemished backcountry, it is out of step with the rest of the system. The numbers help explain why: last year, there were 4.6 million visits to Banff, more than three million more than Jasper National Park, its neighbor to the north. The park’s commercial tourism infrastructure, meanwhile, covers only three per cent of the park’s territory. Sunshine Village ski resort, one of three ski resorts in Banff, is carving new runs into Goat’s Eye Mountain and plans to expand its hotel and park facilities. “Basically, the parks were established for the people of Canada to use and enjoy,” says Ralph Scurfield, Sunshine’s president.

Not so, environmentalists say: Parks Canada’s mandate is to preserve the ecological integrity of its member parks. “Banff is the most highly developed national park in North America,” says Harvey Locke, a Calgary lawyer and president of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “It is an esthetic mess, an eyesore, and it’s all because of the commercial development.” Locke and others contend that shopping malls, conference centres and postcards of Daffy Duck riding an elk are not what Canadians expect from a national park. Biologists also note that the increased density of the townsite and traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway have significantly disrupted prime winter habitat for the park’s wildlife–particularly elk, deer, wolves and cougars. Responding to such concerns, Canadian Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy last year initiated the Banff Bow Valley Study and placed a moratorium on development in the park. The moratorium, however, does not affect the town itself, which recently approved a new 300-unit housing development and an expansion to the Banff Centre.

Park managers are used to the development debate, which, according to Banff superintendent Charlie Zinkan, is as old as the park itself. “But increasingly,” he says, “we are concerned that it has become polarized, confrontational and not constructive.” For now, all sides are hoping that the Bow Valley study will offer a workable compromise, if not a return to the pristine past. “You cannot roll back history,” says Porter. “The townsite is not going away.”

The heyday of park-building came between 1968 and 1974, when, under the then-minister of Indian affairs and northern development, Jean Chretien, Parks Canada established nine new parks. Among them are some of the system’s biggest stars–Pacific Rim, Nahanni in the Northwest Territories, Kluane in the Yukon, La Mauricie in Quebec and Gros Morne in Newfoundland. Since then, critics say, progress towards completing the park system has been slow, held up in part by Parks Canada’s bureaucracy. “It makes you wonder how so many people can do so little,” says Paul George, founding director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

Park officials say that is not true, that only 10 per cent of the full-time staff of about 4,000 works out of the Hull, Que., headquarters. And they say that park-building, no easy task at the best of times, is made more difficult in a climate of budget and staff reductions. Several existing parks, such as Grasslands in Saskatchewan and Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, are incomplete because, even when there was more money available, Parks Canada was unable to acquire all the privately held land within park boundaries. At Kouchibouguac in New Brunswick, one owner still refuses to sell his property. “At the moment,” Porter says, “we do little more than stare at each other over the fence.”

Parks Canada is currently working to deadlines set in the so-called Green Plan, announced by the Conservative government in 1990. Although the Green Plan is now abandoned, the current Liberal government has endorsed the goal to create five new parks by the end of 1995 and have agreements on the remaining 14 unrepresented natural areas signed by the year 2000. Since the deadlines were set, Parks Canada has established Aulavik National Park on Banks Island, N.W.T., and Vuntut National Park in northern Yukon, and it has set aside land for a park on north Baffin Island. Porter says that the agency will try to meet its deadline for two more new parks by the end of this year, but he is not overly optimistic. The likeliest candidates are near Churchill, Man., and one of several sites in the Northwest Territories. “The doors are starting to open on some of these proposals,” he says, “but the negotiations are always delicate.”

The longer the process takes, however, the more difficult it will become. One of the 16 remaining areas to be included is British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia lowlands. Because it is highly developed and pricey real estate, any sizable piece of land there will be enormously expensive to buy and return to its natural state. “We would dearly love to get into some areas of the North, but to some extent, they can wait,” says Porter. “We have to concentrate on the proposals in the South because there is more pressure on them.”


Leading the push for parks have been nongovernmental organizations. Among other things, the Canadian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund has provided scientific research to further Parks Canada’s mandate. The Nature Conservancy of Canada has contributed money to acquire private lands. The Canadian Parks Partnership funds projects that the parks themselves cannot afford. The list goes on. “The time when we called upon the almighty government to do it single-handedly is gone,” says the World Wildlife Fund’s Hackman. “We face a combination of opportunity and urgency–the urgency is that wilderness areas are disappearing quickly in many parts of Canada.”

The future of national parks is now on display at Pacific Rim. The glorious band of beaches and forest along the west coast of Vancouver Island–much of it accessible by car–is a must for any tourist. But that popularity has strained the park’s facilities. In recent years, the West Coast Trail, which traces 77 km of the rugged coastline between Bamfield and Port Renfrew, was overrun by hikers, causing overcrowding and environmental destruction. The same was true at campsites on the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound, and at the main Long Beach campsite, which on its own attracts 400,000 visitors a year.

In response to seven- to eight-per-cent increases in visitor counts at Long Beach in each of the past seven years, the park initiated user fees (currently $20 a night for a drive-in campsite) in 1994 to bolster its declining budget and to offset the cost of maintaining trails and campgrounds. The reservation system and user fees for the West Coast Trail–$25 to make a reservation, $60 to use the trail–were designed to ease pressure on the backcountry. Now, campers and hikers can book their trips at Pacific Rim through an 800 telephone service. The park limits the number of hikers starting out on the West Coast Trail to 52 each day. Bill McIntyre, the park’s community relations chief, says visitors understand that protecting the park comes first. “We cannot compromise on our protection mandate–that has to be our bottom line,” says McIntyre. “We feel it’s necessary to protect our resource before we provide access to it.”

For most Canadians, national parks have less to do with public policy than with personal experience. According to a 1993 Angus Reid poll, one-third of all Canadians said their experience in national parks had positively shaped their appreciation of the environment. Parks Canada’s Porter says he began to fully understand the value of parks when, while working in Kouchibouguac, he watched an excited group of kids see their first fox. “I got a real appreciation for what others see,” Porter says, “and I learned that parks are not just about scenery.”

The excitement extends into adulthood. At Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, for instance, there is a favored fishing spot that anglers like to keep secret. Bypassed by the majority of park visitors, who usually stay close to the spectacular Cabot Trail, the wild and dramatic Cheticamp River is prized by hard-core fishermen. And as they always do during the June salmon run, anglers gathered recently at first light to cast their flies hopefully into the dark, swirling pools. Around them, yellow swallowtail butterflies, their wings aglow in the warming sun, fluttered against the backdrop of dark-green forest. The day’s first catch went to Susan Balch, a 38-year-old quilter, who hooked a feisty 10-pounder. Local regulations require that anglers release any fish they catch, but that did not bother Balch. She has fished the Cheticamp for 13 years, and part of what makes the experience worthwhile year after year is that there are still fish to catch. “Places like this,” she says after releasing her silvery prize, “are a treasure.” And with any luck, they will stay that way.

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