Stanley Park’s nature was shaped by human hands

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      Visitors to the Vancouver park board office on Beach Avenue, at the foot of Stanley Park, are greeted with an unusual sign as they exit their vehicles. They are warned that they are standing in the midst of an important bird colony: the trees in the green space immediately facing the parking lot are filled with nesting herons.

      “You’ve got the [Fish House] restaurant, the tennis courts, the administration office, and you’ve got a road right here,” chair Korina Houghton tells the Georgia Straight at the board’s office. “They’re just perched in there, and it’s one of the larger colonies in B.C.” (In fact, the herons made headlines in July when a bird carcass was left hanging and decomposing in a tree, in view of attendees at a tennis tournament.)

      Herons, cars, and tennis courts: it’s an almost absurd scenario, one that encapsulates the awkward relationship that Vancouverites have with the 400-plus-hectare burst of greenery so implausibly close to the city’s downtown core. And, as has been made clear in the aftermath of the punishing December 2006 windstorm that felled 10,000 of the park’s 150,000 trees and caused severe damage to 40 hectares of the forest, Stanley Park is a work in progress, continually being renegotiated and altered to fit the whims of the day.

      That’s the message behind a new exhibit opening September 25 and running until February 15 at the Vancouver Museum. Titled The Unnatural History of Stanley Park, the show, which is being unveiled along with 36 new interpretive panels in Stanley Park, aims to challenge preconceptions of the park as an unspoiled slice of wild B.C.

      “What we’re trying to do is just inform people on the peculiar relationship that we people have had over the years with Stanley Park, and the ways in which, although we worship nature there, we’ve manipulated and controlled it and messed around with it,” explains the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions, Joan Seidl, during a preliminary tour of the exhibit. “Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just, let’s be honest about it.”

      When the aftermath of the 2006 blowdown was displayed on television screens across the nation and beyond, residents mourned the destruction of this iconic pristine forest. An outpouring of public grief and support for the park followed, with $3.5 million in corporate and individual donations and $2 million each from the City of Vancouver, the provincial government, and the federal government raised for its restoration.

      Shocking as the storm was, it’s worth noting that there was nothing unnatural or unusual about it. In fact, according to Seidl, there were 19 major blowdowns in Stanley Park between 1900 and 1960. Then in 1962 Hurricane Freda levelled a 2.5-hectare tract and cleared enough space to allow the construction of the miniature railway and petting zoo.

      “A windstorm of this magnitude is just basically nature’s way of culling out the old stuff and bringing in new things, and that’s exactly what happened,” Houghton points out. “The fact that we have meddled somewhat in the history of the park, and we’ve managed it and we’ve suppressed fire and all those sorts of things, it’s changed the face of the forest itself.”

      From its very beginning, Stanley Park has been every bit as man-made as the 61-storey Shangri-La Hotel tower on Georgia Street that looms over Coal Harbour like a modern-day megalith. A military reserve in the 1860s, and the site of logging by six different companies from the 1860s to the 1880s, the park received its designation in 1888, until which time there had been little development on the land (apart from First Nations villages, all of which had been unceremoniously shooed away by the early 1900s).

      But since Governor General Lord Stanley dedicated the park for “the use and enjoyment of peoples of all colours, creeds, and customs”, it has been dramatically altered. Roads were cut through the park and First Nations middens, land was cleared to create the Brockton Oval cricket pitch, and erosion-control projects begun in the 1920s laid the foundation for what eventually became the sea wall.

      The first on-site park ranger got himself a pet bear cub, the first in a collection of animals that grew into the Stanley Park Zoo, which was closed in 1996. The natural wildlife did not escape human interference either.

      “There was a great cougar hunt in 1911,” Seidl says. “A cougar who was prowling the park and killing the angora goats in the zoo had a bounty put on its head.”¦There was also a crow shoot, which was an annual event. The parks board arranged with the Vancouver Gun Club that in the spring, usually in April early in the morning, they could shoot crows for a month. That went on around 1900, and the last evidence I have of it was 1920.”

      Today, the seemingly pristine forests of the park are anything but, according to Jim Lowden, the park board’s director of Stanley District. “The balance of tree type that was here in 1850 before we started to log”¦was roughly a third hemlock, a third fir, and a third cedar,” he notes in a phone conversation. “What happened is with the logging of the late 1800s, they took the best of the fir and the cedar and left all the hemlock. The hemlock is a more opportunistic and faster breeder, so today we have a ratio of nearly 70 percent hemlock and just 15 percent fir, 15 percent cedar left. So we’re trying to bring that back.”

      Although there has always been a human element at work in the forests of Stanley Park, the cleanup efforts following the storm laid bare the extent of that interference for all to see. The decision to pull wood out of the forest—10,000 logs in all, according to Lowden, the bulk of which were sold as lumber for a total of $630,000—was one that inspired plenty of criticism from environmental groups and nature advocates.

      “We wanted to see more of the wood left,” says Joe Foy, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, by phone. “There were a number of arguments [for taking the trees out]. One was a fire hazard. We don’t buy that one. One was that some of this money [from selling the lumber] could be put into restoring the park. We don’t buy that. The third one was”¦forest managers were making a case that in order to manage invasive species they needed to pull much of this timber out. It’s not a black-and-white issue.”¦

      "But we do think it’s important just for park managers and the general public to consider that these forests were never intended to supply lumber, and that they are what we have right in the city for this generation and future generations to think about the ancient forests that once covered this whole landscape.”

      Lowden, however, stands firm on the park-board decision, citing the risk of fires, insect infestations, and invasive species had the wood stayed put: “We felt that just leaving stuff as it was was inappropriate.”

      Another criticism that arose following the windstorm was about the lack of a Stanley Park management plan. Naturalist Peter Woods, who has been documenting and studying the park for 10 years, says the park board has failed to follow through on previous goals and has little accountability built into its system.

      “Parks board has a library of plans, but they don’t seem to translate into actual day-to-day management practices,” he notes in conversation on a park bench at Second Beach. “Is there any record that they achieved any of their original objectives? Did they keep records? Did they keep maps?”

      Woods claims he filed a freedom-of-information request earlier this year for documents relating to the park’s management, which resulted in very little of substance. “They basically had a cobbled-together sketch map with no scale, no legend, nothing, and that didn’t reflect at all the work they’d done on establishing tree plantations over the last 20 years or within the last year.”¦So there’s no map and there were no written records.”

      Lowden acknowledges that there has been no management plan for the park, but he says the park board is in the process of building one: “One of our major expenditures out of our legacy funds is to create a long-term forest-management plan, which is being feverishly worked on right now by [urban forestry technician] Bill Stephen. And we have also contracted with the University of British Columbia to help us formulate this thing.” Lowden says the plan should be completed by Christmas, but he bristles when asked what sort of oversight and accountability will be built into its enforcement.

      “Basically, it will be monitored by the people that use it,” he insists. “I mean, dear Mr. Woods has this paranoid notion that we’re all a bunch of evil dwarves and we don’t do good things and somebody should be watching us. Well, that’s not the case, and this management plan says: ”˜Here’s what you have to do, here’s how you check, here’s when you should check, here’s how you should review your findings and what you should do about it.’”¦There is no big, bad controller, there is nobody with jackboots and a gun. We will do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

      As the park board strives to formulate and implement a plan that doesn’t ruffle too many feathers, it’s clear that any overt interference in Stanley Park—whether it be pulling fallen trees out of the forest, removing the beloved Hollow Tree (a decision that is on hold), or installing animatronic dinosaurs near the miniature train (a misguided project that was initiated and quickly shelved by the park board in 2007)—provokes public scrutiny and, often, ire.

      With looming expansions to the Vancouver Aquarium and the Brockton totem poles visitor centre, along with talk of building a 10,000-seat rugby stadium at Brockton Oval and the current realignment of Park Drive at Prospect Point, plenty more discussion and public debate can be expected. None of it should come as a surprise, however. After all, the legacy of this 120-year-old landmark rests on a history of tension, interference, and flux.

      “I hope people realize that Stanley Park is a park,” Seidl says, explaining what she’d like visitors to the museum exhibit to take home with them. “It’s not a slice of wilderness. In Stanley Park, we’re seeing a managed, urban environment.”¦I think we need to make intelligent decisions [about the park’s future]. We can’t say it’s only going to be natural. Nor do we want the consequences of saying we’ll take any development that comes along. It’s a continual series of difficult choices, and we have to be up for that.”