Differing views on wilderness

'Many of us would agree that we want to protect our wild places, but the concept of a wild place varies immensely for different individuals. As you might expect, it also varies in the courts and in our law.'

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Robyn Goldsmith photo

In British Columbia, wilderness is a concept that many of us value. We are proud of our province’s beauty and wild spaces. The term ‘wilderness’ permeates the culture of environmentalism, but its content it difficult to ascertain. Many of us would agree that we want to protect our wild places, but the concept of a wild place varies immensely for different individuals. As you might expect, it also varies in the courts and in our law.

There are generally two definitions of wilderness one might expect to encounter: a biocentric version, which would look at wilderness as that which is completely outside human influence, and an anthropocentric version, which views wilderness as something humans will encounter and feel challenged by, and should partake in. These two differing views have been employed when designating land as parks or reserves, and the idea of wilderness continues to find its way into the conservation and environmentalist movements.

Our federal Sustainable Development Act and corresponding strategies set out that the protection of wilderness areas is a sustainable practice, and that the protection of nature is a primary goal for Canadians. However, our concept of wilderness is ever-evolving. Are our wild spaces a playground for human enjoyment, or spaces in which nature should flourish without interference?

Our National Parks Act further reflects this tension between biocentric and anthropocentric wilderness. Subsection 8(2) states that ecological integrity is supposed to be the determinative factor in a decision, while subsection 4(1) dedicates the parks of Canada to the Canadian people, for their “benefit, education, and enjoyment”.

Two cases in which individuals sued the federal government for negligence in relation to bear attacks illustrate the role of the wilderness concept and the tension it carries in our system. In Tobler v Canada (Minister of the Environment), the Federal Court found that Parks Canada had been negligent in not seeking to prevent a bear attack. This is reflective of a societal view that our parks should be enjoyed, and should provide humans with a natural experience for their benefit. In Sturdy v Canada, on the other hand, the judge embraced the idea of nature as a place where inherent dangers exist, a place where humans were simply at odds with the untameable wild. Parks Canada was not found liable in negligence for a bear attack in a park.

Setting aside land for parks and reserves and determining their inherent value in terms of recreation versus ecological conservation is undoubtedly difficult. There are many pressures on these areas, and great expectations set upon them. We expect a single park or reserve to offer recreation, ecological sustainability, and wilderness. We want to take pride in our country and to visit its treasures, but simultaneously to recognize that we have something worth conserving.