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Crossing the Chischa River in Muskwa-Kechika. Even in late June, vast pans of snow remain on the shady banks. (Bruce Kirkby)
Crossing the Chischa River in Muskwa-Kechika. Even in late June, vast pans of snow remain on the shady banks. (Bruce Kirkby)

Ride through the ‘Serengeti of the North’ Add to ...

Now, after six hours of painstakingly following whispers of Buddy, Sawchuk – who auditioned for the part of Mantracker in the popular television show – has heard something. We stand motionless. Clouds of mosquitoes press around our face and ears. A squirrel screeches in protest at our presence. A chipping sparrow flits past, and on a nearby snag, a pair of hairy woodpeckers dance in circles. Then, hidden amid these gentle sounds, comes a faint grunt.

“That is the sound of a struggling horse!” Sawchuk exclaims, and strides off at a near sprint. Soon we’re before Buddy, who is standing motionless in a cluster of pines. The remains of a saddle and rigging hang in a tangle beneath his belly. Sawchuk approaches slowly, steadily, whispering encouragement. The horse is exhausted but unharmed. Gently wrapping an arm around Buddy’s neck, the normally stoic Sawchuk turns with misty eyes and asks me to snap a picture.

CANADA’S BEST-KEPT SECRET

If you spread a map of North America across a table, then poured a bottle of red wine upon the heart of the continent, the stain – soaking the high mountain cordillera to the west, drenching the Prairies, engulfing the Great Lakes while seeping south toward Mexico and north to Alaska – would represent the historical (or “pre-contact”) range for most of the New World’s large carnivores and ungulates.

With time, that spill has been steadily mopped up. A recent study by the American Institute of Biological Sciences shows just a splash survives today. Plotting the current populations of North America’s large species (10 carnivores and 7 ungulates) reveals that in one – and only one – spot on the entire continent does the full palate of original wildlife remain: the Muskwa-Kechika, a sprawling wilderness straddling the northern spine of British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains.

Arguably, no one has played a bigger role in protecting the Muskwa-Kechika than the misty-eyed man with his arm around Buddy’s neck.

In the early 1990s, British Columbia set the ambitious goal of developing a comprehensive land use strategy for the northern half of the province. The provincial government gave a unique directive to northern stakeholders: find consensus. No votes, no split-decisions; policy must address and satisfy all concerns. And everyone was invited to the table: forestry, mining, oil and gas, recreational users, organized labour, guide outfitters, trappers, conservation groups, hunters, first nations and local government.

Sawchuk – who knew the wild lands of the northern Rockies intimately – leapt headlong into the process. In the 1950s and ’60s he watched his father raze forests, farms, orchards and entire towns in advance of dam construction. The loss of so much beauty felt wrong; he didn’t want to watch it again.

The solution the diverse group of stakeholders eventually arrived at represents a unique attempt to find balance between the competing needs for wilderness protection and industrial activity. Ultimately, 6.4 million hectares – an area 10 times the size of Banff National Park – was set aside; 1.6 million hectares are protected in a constellation of 20 protected areas, and 4.7 million hectares are in a special management zone, where industrial use is permitted, but wilderness and cultural values are taken into account when operations take place, and the land is returned to its previous state afterward. An advisory board – with members representing every interest – reviews all plans and proposals, offering their opinion to the provincial government, which makes the final decision.

Fate has played a hand in diminishing tensions in Muskwa-Kechicka, as timber prices are at record lows and there are no significant gas discoveries within its boundaries. Still, why does it work? Sawchuk is unequivocal: “Consensus. If the board wasn’t obliged to consider every view, it would all fall apart.” One recent example involves shale and sheep. When shale gas deposits were found in an area designated as critical stone sheep habitat, the board ordered a detailed population survey. Because sheep utilized only half the zone set aside for them, development proceeded in the other half, in winter, when the footprint was almost nil. Despite its size and success, Muskwa-Kechika remains one of Canada’s best-kept secrets.

RIVERS THE COLOUR OF BOMBAY SAPPHIRE

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