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Park lovers debate as silt fills Stanley Park’s Beaver Lake

Visitors stop near a beaver lodge to photograph wildlife at Beaver Lake in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Stanley Park's reputation as a wilderness jewel is as manufactured as the park. The area has been manhandled over its 125 years, but its undeserved reputation still means the city's parks board must tread carefully whenever it needs to bring in the heavy equipment.

Beaver Lake, at the centre of the park, requires dredging before it becomes little more than a bog, filled in by silt and an overabundance of invasive plants.

But some in Vancouver say it should be allowed to follow its natural course.

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The parks board is holding open houses to ask for public feedback, but those that oversee the park say there aren't many realistic choices besides at least partial dredging.

"To do nothing, in my mind, is not an option," said Aaron Jasper, a commissioner with the board who says by 2020 the lake will be completely gone.

The suggestions include adding a boardwalk built through the middle of the lake or adding small islands peppered to support wildlife and a two-storey viewing platform. But both concepts include dredging.

However, a naturalist who visits the park twice a week to photograph animals and plants says Beaver Lake isn't really a lake at all, but a marshy pond and it should stay that way.

"To me, it's a violent kind of approach," said Peter Woods. "My fear is that they're going to go in, and basically change the whole feel and nature of that landscape."

He added: "It's like having the Mona Lisa in a gallery, and it's getting a little frayed around the edges. Now, do we hire an artist to come in and repaint the whole thing?"

Restoring the lake will affect the wildlife that calls it home, including the six beavers that live in a lodge 30 metres off shore. The beavers will be moved until the restoration is done.

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"Any type of dredging or any type of interference we approach with extreme caution," said Lesley Fox, executive director of the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals. Ms. Fox said dredging is unnecessary because the beavers will naturally flood the lake by damming it, clearing away invasive species such as water lilies.

But the landscape of Beaver Lake has been manipulated for more than a century.

Beaver Lake was first dredged in 1929 and salmon were introduced. Before that, in 1911, a trail was built around lake's edge.

To celebrate Vancouver's 50th anniversary, fragrant water lilies were thrown into the water, but they soon invaded the whole lake.

Today, problems that were introduced decades ago are being exacerbated by traffic from the Stanley Park Causeway and park trails that speed up the natural process of silt buildup.

Sean Kheraj, author of Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History, says the park has always been about managing the wilderness. In the early days of Vancouver, residents thought the fallen trees and swamps were "ugly," and so the forest was replanted with Douglas Firs, and beaches were created by pulling up sand from the bottom of English Bay.

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"We end up kind of conflicted," Mr. Kheraj said. "On the one hand, we want to admire nature in Stanley Park for its beauty, for its ecological value, but in many ways, that nature is tied up with our own activities."

In 2011, the park board released the Stanley Park Ecological Action Plan, which noted that something needed to be done about Beaver Lake. Public consultations included an open house last week and one on Saturday. The aim is to have a budget ready by November, 2014, in time for Vancouver's next capital plan.

Patricia Thomson, executive director of the Stanley Park Ecology Society, said that after decades of human intervention, it's hard to call Beaver Lake a "fully natural system."

"If we want to hold an open, freshwater lake system, there will always have to be some degree of management, partially to manage what has already been managed in the past."

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