Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
A wooden boardwalk extends through a pond area, conserving the natural habitat.

Wise use

As a well-travelled geologist who went on to become Canada’s deputy minister of mines, Charles Camsell knew a great deal about the use of natural resources. But by the time he founded The Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 1929, his perspective had become much broader. He spoke of “wise use”, a cornerstone of the movement that became known as conservation. This principle continues to drive our environmental outlook, whether we are considering air pollution, endangered species or the preservation of wetlands. Whatever we choose to do about such matters, we still want — still need — wisdom on our side.

Effects of conservation on local species

Many species would not be around if it were not for our attempts to rescue them. Of course, many species would not be in danger if it were not for our attempts to exploit them. It is always a case of striking a balance between personal needs and the good of the ecosystem — what Camsell would call wise use. More typically, a cycle occurs: we overharvest an animal, the harvesters face tough economic times, authorities impose harvesting quotas, and slowly — if the population has not been stretched too thinly — a balance resumes with fewer harvesters and fewer resources to be harvested, but a greater appreciation of the value of conservation.

The prairie drought of the 1930s underscored the need to preserve waterfowl and other wildlife, if there were to be any kind of natural environment for future generations to enjoy. Groups such as Ducks Unlimited began to work with farmers, establishing buffer zones between crops and wetlands so that local wildlife would not be disturbed by agricultural practices.

Conservation stories often detail the creation of protective legislation tied to the fate of an organism. With such legislation comes enforcement, and by the mid-20th century, many places in Canada had staffs of trained biologists and conservation officers for just this purpose. In 1954, one writer in the magazine lamented the need to enforce the protection and conservation of wildlife. Like it or not, that need persists.

Canadian Geographic retrospective

Natural resources and their conservation

By Charles Camsell
July 1942

Charles Camsell — the founder of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a deputy minister of mines at one time — addressed a crowd at a North American wildlife conference in the spring of 1942 and this article is from that speech.

He argues that resources included not only agricultural soils and water power, but also forests and wildlife — and that these could endure in perpetuity if they were wisely used. However, if unwisely used, he foresaw a denuded landscape creating human want, degradation, misery and death.

When Camsell wrote this, the population was 11.5 million and he noted that the current resources of the country were estimated to be sufficient to maintain a population two or three times that without lowering the standard of living in Canada.

Mention of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act was made, citing such related activities as strip farming, trees being planted to create shelters and artificial ponds being made to help waterfowl as the country was coming out of the difficult 1930s when farmland had suffered. As well, Camsell alludes to the possibility of tapping into Fort McMurray’s resources in the future.

Among discussions of forest coverage and water conservation, Camsell says he feels the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty adopted by Canada and the U.S. was one of the most forward steps ever taken in wildlife conservation and that, “conservation of our natural resources is one of the chief tasks facing us.”

A patch of tallgrass very much worth saving

By William H. Metcalfe
August/September 1985

A heartwarming tale of real estate developers being tamed by an angry 87-year-old horticulturist waving his cane is chronicled in this story.

“A patch of tallgrass very much worth saving,” by William H. Metcalfe, describes the Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg, where a patch of the very nearly disappeared Prairie tallgrass escapes real estate development and becomes an unusual live museum after a very tight vote at council level. The elderly Pete de Wet spoke in front of council for the preservation of the area with common sense and passion and, “when the vote was taken conservation had won by a majority of one.”

The article points to such facts of the time, including that 99 percent of the vast stretches of tallgrass prairie had disappeared. The cause was seen mainly to be farms and houses. This was considered a huge loss due to the feeling among scientists that this was the most complex and balanced ecosystem of plants and animals in the world.

With Winnipeg possessing the last patch — saved thanks to Pete de Wet — a museum was created. It is an unusual museum due to mainly being a seemingly simple patch of grass and flowers, but its importance in the move toward more conservation-minded Canadians cannot be understated.

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