Few of the patrons passing through the ornate lobby of the Hotel Vancouver on the morning of April 28, 2006, would have paid any attention to the German noble sitting quietly amid the regal decor. After a long overnight flight from Europe, His Royal Highness Duke Friedrich von Württemberg waited patiently, legs crossed, on an upholstered couch. Flanking him were Wolfgang Feil, chief executive officer of the Württemberg business empire, and Christian Schadendorf, general manager of Pluto Darkwoods, the family’s Canadian forestry operation. The men were in Vancouver to sell a little bit of real estate: 55,000 hectares of rugged wilderness straddling the spine of British Columbia’s southern Selkirk Mountains.
Map depicting the scope of the Darkwoods land deal
Duke Friedrich’s father, Duke Carl Herzog von Württemberg (henceforth referred to as “the Duke”), had bought the land nearly 40 years earlier. As is common among German estate holders, he considered the property an investment for future generations and, visiting every summer, grew deeply attached. But the sudden intersection of a spreading mounain pine beetle infestation, soaring forest fire threats and a massive property-tax increase forced the Duke’s hand. In poor health and no longer able to journey overseas, he made the difficult decision to sell.
The Duke sought a buyer who would treat the land with respect, but he also wanted fair market value for a property valued at around $100 million. The usual suspects were interested: forestry companies and land developers that would inevitably strip the timber value, then subdivide the hell out of the place. When the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) tendered a competitive offer, the Duke sent his eldest son to meet with NCC management to discuss NCC’s vision for the land and assess its ability to raise the substantial capital required.
As the Germans waited in the hotel lobby, Duke Friedrich’s eyes kept straying to the brass-clad revolving doors. Whenever ponytailed or Gore-Tex-clad men entered, he would lean toward Schadendorf and whisper, “Is this them?”
“You must understand,” explains Schadendorf later, “Duke Friedrich comes from an entirely different world.”
Raised in Altshausen Castle, Duke Friedrich is heir apparent to a dynasty that dates back to the 11th century. The German state of Baden-Württemberg bears the family name; part of its coat of arms appears in the Porsche logo (although there is no official tie between the two).
When Tom Swann and Jan Garnett finally arrived, NCC’s regional vice-presidents were dressed like bankers, not mountain climbers or logging-road blockaders. NCC is anything but a grassroots outfit. Nearly 50 years old, the private, non-profit organization employs almost 200 full-time staff, holds half a billion dollars in assets and manages more than 800,000 hectares of ecologically significant land.
Duke Friedrich rose and formally presented his business card. Plain white, it featured only his name. “There was something so elegant about the moment,” recalls Swann. “I keep that card on my desk as a memento.”
Before long, the group was laughing about Duke Friedrich’s conservationist stereotypes — the perfect icebreaker, says Swann. That helped; despite NCC’s initial 68-page proposal, the complex deal was far from done. For more than a year after the Vancouver meeting, book-sized legal documents, translated back and forth between German and English, circulated between Altshausen Castle, Pluto Darkwoods headquarters in Nelson, B.C., and law offices in Toronto and Victoria.
The purchase price was leagues beyond anything NCC had previously considered. “It felt as if it could slip away at any time,” says Swann. NCC sought partners, canvassed major donors and contemplated commercial ventures on the property, but nothing could bridge the gap. As the closing date loomed, Environment Canada’s Natural Areas Conservation Program bestowed $185 million to NCC, with $25 million going to Darkwoods. Other funds began to flow, but not nearly enough. So, for the first time in its history, NCC went to the bank and borrowed a large sum.
On July 9, 2008, then Environment Minister John Baird and NCC president John Lounds triumphantly announced the largest purchase of private land for conservation purposes in Canadian history. It sounded like a fairy-tale ending for the mysterious Darkwoods property. But, in reality, considering the deep-rooted challenges behind presiding over a landscape so vast, the story was only beginning to unfold.
Dark, fractured rock drops away precipitously on both sides of the narrow ridge. Swirling clouds obliterate visibility, and blasts of snow sting my cheeks. Ahead, Dave Quinn — a good friend and a wildlife biologist who focuses on conservation issues — tentatively edges his skis forward. I follow, occasionally snapping pictures but mostly remaining huddled beneath my hood.
It is the first day of spring and my first of 10 visits to Darkwoods, a place that will occupy my days and dreams for more than a year. I had read all the jaw-dropping statistics and descriptions — larger than Waterton Lakes National Park, 15 separate watersheds, more than 50 alpine lakes, peaks soaring above 2,400 metres, ancient old growth, prime caribou and grizzly habitat — but to truly understand the landscape, I needed complete immersion.
Earlier in the day, Quinn and I had left my rusty pickup in the sleepy outpost of Ymir, riding snowmobiles up logging roads into the high country. As the sun climbed higher, temperatures soared, turning the March snow to soup; we affixed skins to skis and slogged upward, leaving cutblocks behind. We wove through a gnarled forest of subalpine fir and larch until reaching exposed ridges. By late afternoon, unable to see even our ski tips, we stomped a platform, set up our lightweight tipi and hunkered down.
Teddy Roosevelt, who was already a rising star in the Republican Party when he came here to hunt in 1888, offered one of the first written accounts of Darkwoods. Stopping at a rare delta on Kootenay Lake’s western shore — likely the mouth of Cultus Creek — his party left their canoes and headed inland. The bush they encountered was “impenetrable,” with deadfall so thick that Roosevelt regularly found himself “20 or 30 feet above the ground.” During a fortnight in the area, Roosevelt shot a bull caribou and an immense black bear. “The view from the summits was magnificent,” he waxed, “and I never tired of gazing at it.”
Quinn and I see a similar view the next morning, emerging from our tipi to a citrus-orange dawn. The summit of Württemberg Mountain is surprisingly close. This rocky peak was registered with the Geographical Names Board of Canada to mark the Duke’s 50th birthday, a present from his staff. We skip breakfast and scramble up to the wind-scoured summit.
Below, in every direction, spreads a web of valleys, beyond which rises a sea of rocky peaks. Cutblocks and skid roads stand out everywhere. “Complete plunder,” grunts Quinn. Although he’s optimistic about wildlife conservation under NCC, Quinn remains deeply impacted by the clear-cutting he witnessed here years ago while working on a grizzly study. “They took all the valuable timber, then sold the land,” he says. Indeed, everyone familiar with Darkwoods has strong opinions; many are diametrically opposed. The truth is elusive, but one thing is certain: it sure doesn’t look like a national park.
We spend the next five days exploring the terrain that Roosevelt hunted, bunking on our last night in a small cabin used by the Duke during visits with his children. The interior is a mess of beer cans and garbage left by snowmobilers.
The thermometer reads -18°C when we awake on our final morning; our skis are coated with long fingers of hoarfrost. Clicking in, we begin the 1,300-metre descent to Kootenay Lake. Our destination is Tye, originally a railway whistle stop and mill site, now home to 40 recreational cabins on year-to-year leases. Winter is soon behind us. Songbirds echo through the low-elevation forest, and creeks thunder with the onset of freshet. It’s T-shirt weather by the time we swing skis across our shoulders and clomp down a gravel road in unwieldy ski boots. Four hours later, we stumble onto a white-sand beach, strip and dive in.
Nine years after Roosevelt’s visit, Darkwoods was cleaved from Crown holdings and granted to the Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway. Over the next 60 years, the land changed hands six times as a succession of lumber companies tried, but failed, to make a run at operating in the difficult terrain. Loggers plowed through the thick bush, taking one or two massive trees per hectare. Hauled to Tye, the old growth was milled and then barged to Nelson — one of several local communities that leaned on the land — where it was used to make products such as telephone poles, fruit boxes and matches. Several owners went bankrupt, and portions of the property reverted to the Crown for unpaid taxes.
The Duke came calling in 1967. Faced with the threat of Cold War expansion by the Soviets, he sought timber and land investments abroad, as was fashionable at the time among German aris - tocracy. After surveying the terrain by helicopter, the Duke’s advisers concluded that it was too steep, too rugged and too remote to be profitable. Only 55 percent was operable forest, and 84 percent was above 1,400 metres. But the Duke had fallen for the wild land, and a deal was soon closed. After wandering the shadystands of alpine fir, he christened the property Darkwoods. “Pluto” was added later by his staff, for whom the southern Selkirks may as well have been on another planet.
Taking over a 55,000-hectare chunk of land is no simple business, as NCC is now learning. The organization has mapped out a five-year transition plan, during which Pluto Darkwoods will continue to manage daily operations, albeit logging at a reduced rate. The man responsible for preparing NCC’s long-term vision is Pat Field, the group’s project manager for the South Selkirks Natural Area. With a resumé that includes senior-level work on British Columbia’s 1990 Commission on Resources and Environment, he’s well qualified to tackle the monumental challenge. I visit Field in his Castlegar home, where we settle at a table covered in maps and reports and conduct a virtual flyover of the property using Google Earth.
“The first thing you need to understand,” begins Field, “is that NCC is not in the business of making parks. What we do is purchase, preserve and maintain working landscapes.” With long white hair and a healthy moustache, Field looks remarkably like Kenny Rogers or a powerful character from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. His first task was to recruit a team of scientists, who gathered the baseline data required to make informed recommendations. “This is, by far, the most complex plan I have ever taken on, and there is no room for guesswork,” he says. “We’ll use literaturebased, data-driven, expert-calibrated, peer-reviewed science to guide our objectives and actions.”
Field’s team assembled historical information and the results of recent studies into a multi-layered digital warehouse. “That was a massive step,” he says, “because for 40 years, Darkwoods was essentially managed with pencil crayons.” Another challenge Field must face is controlling public access, which, in rural British Columbia, can be a powder keg, as emotional and entrenched as an American’s right to bear arms.
Schadendorf, and a string of managers before him, discovered that the hard way, importing a German mindset and, initially, trying to keep everyone out. “Every time we put up a gate,” he says, “someone would drive in with a welding truck and tear it down.” Pluto Darkwoods backed off and allowed activities such as fishing, beach visits and berry picking, requiring visitors to sign waivers and restricting access to summer weekends. “Overall,” says Schadendorf, “it worked quite well.”
The deeper truth behind his words is that for decades, Darkwoods operated behind a veil of uncanny privacy. There were no signs at the highway entrances and no public maps depicting its 450-kilometre network of roads. Despite the property’s size, few beyond the nearby communities of Salmo, Creston and Ymir knew it existed. Even today, say “Darkwoods” in those small towns, and you’ll likely get a confused look.
Then NCC appeared on the scene and began issuing national press releases. Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of the action. Snowmobilers, mineral tenure holders, firewood collectors, hunters, anglers, ATV advocacy groups, camera clubs, local governments, NGOs and First Nations all asserted interests and rights. Until Field finishes his plan, however, the rules remain unchanged: access by permit and only during summer weekends, no fires, no ATVs, no hunting, no camping.
“Unfortunately, adherence went out the window,” sighs Schadendorf, shaking his head. “People began showing up saying, ‘Taxpayer money went into purchasing this land, so we’ll do whatever we bloody well want on it.’” Someone plopped down an RV and refused to leave when confronted. Kayakers paddled creeks while bull trout were staging. A sensitive riparian area was torn up by mud-bogging ATVs. Six poachers were caught. The irony, on the eve of the land’s securement for conservation, is hard to miss.
NCC posted signs, but every tree bearing one was felled. A gate network went in. When those were cut out, NCC began filling the gate pipes with concrete, which led to locks being filled with epoxy. “Sure, it’s frustrating, but if we want to maintain the mission of NCC, we need broad public support,” says Field. “It becomes a delicate balancing act.”
The bottom line, as Field well knows, is that Darkwoods is a big deal, giving conservationists the opportunity to address issues of global importance like climate change. Flora and fauna can move up or down its elevation profile as conditions change, and there’s enough space and foliage to support migratory animals such as caribou and wideranging carnivores like wolverines. And Darkwoods is surrounded by a series of provincial parks and wildlifemanagement areas that, combined, cover more than 100,000 hectares of contiguous protected land. “We need to get this right,” says Field. “We can’t jump the gun and change things due to social pressures.”
My phone rings at midnight. I grope for a bedside light and catch an excited voice. It’s Gerry Nellestijn, a fisheries technologist studying water quality and habitat in Darkwoods for NCC. “The bull trout are spawning,” he says. “Right now.” I stumble downstairs to pack my wetsuit.
Nellestijn, who homesteads on 65 hectares adjacent to Darkwoods, is unreservedly enthusiastic about fish. We first met in July, when he took me to a series of deep pools near the mouth of Cultus Creek. Nellestijn had leapt in from a four-metre cliff, and I had followed. Filled with emeraldgreen water, the smooth serpentine channels were less than a metre wide, but often six metres deep. I spotted four large bull trout, a rare and elusive fish that lives in the coldest, cleanest and most secluded waters and is threatened throughout its traditional range. I was ecstatic, but Nellestijn only laughed. I’d missed the real spectacle that spring, he told me, when 80 large bull trout were in the same pools, staging for their upstream migration.
Now it’s the last week of August, and the morning after his call, Nellestijn and I meet again on Cultus Creek, this time near its alpine headwaters. Over the past two summers, Nellestijn has hiked every inch of the steep creek counting redds, the distinctive gravel nests that each mating pair creates. As we wrestle with neoprene wetsuits, he notes that seven drops measuring more than 1.3 metres lie downstream. “Any one of those should be enough to turn around spawning bull trout. But they don’t. The fish that are making it up here are powerful. There’s something exceptional about them.”
Slipping into the icy waters, we quickly spot a pair building a redd. Moving upstream, we see five more bull trout in the next pool. Nellestijn continues upstream. Soon I hear his whistle. He has found another pair. I am carefully wading toward him when I realize I’m about to step on a bull trout as long as a baseball bat, emblazoned with the brilliant red and orange of spawn.
Over the next 100 metres, we encounter 27 large fish. One female returns again and again to rub against my camera. Her massive partner, nearly a metre long, darts from beneath a nearby waterfall, bearing directly toward my lens with his mouth gaping open in an intimidating territorial display.
“Every fish population in the upper Columbia Basin — with rare exception — is in decline,” says Nellestijn as we warm up with a Thermos of coffee. “To find this very strong population, overcoming unimaginable barriers and challenges, is the equivalent of the three-minute mile.” After a pause, he continues: “Pluto Darkwoods should be recognized, because from what I’ve seen, it respected riparian values. Other private landowners might not have been so scrupulous.”
Just how do the forests of Darkwoods differ from standard-issue crown land in British Columbia? At Pluto Darkwoods’ corporate office, tucked behind a stand of cedar on a dead-end road on the outskirts of Nelson, Christian Schadendorf tries to explain. “Every forest in Germany was completely devastated 200 years ago, and as a nation, we’ve had to rebuild them,” he says. Silviculture is a strong national tradition, and “the Duke gave his North American staff the same instructions he gives for his forests in Germany: first and foremost, build value.”
As Schadendorf points out, this situation is reversed throughout much of the province, where a seemingly unlimited supply of trees has placed the emphasis on taking. Crown land works on a tenure system, giving operators an incentive to take all they can, when they can, because they don’t know whether they’ll have the same opportunity down the road. Pluto Darkwoods, on the other hand, began experimenting with selective logging in the 1960s and replanting in the 1970s. “Nobody replanted back then,” says Schadendorf, “and we had folks calling us stupid for trying.” It was impossible to obtain seedlings at the time, so Darkwoods grew its own from seeds the foresters collected by hand.
“Our annual timber harvest was roughly 30 percent less than what any other owner would have considered the long-term sustainable rate,” says Schadendorf. “Nobody denies that clear-cuts are ugly, but our human visual aesthetic sensibilities give us no reliable indication whatsoever of the state of biodiversity or the health of the land and forest. There can be a big difference between good forestry and good-looking forestry.”
Despite Schadendorf ’s pride, I repeatedly hear that the property was “creamed” and is only being sold because nothing of value remains. To gauge that accusation, I contact Roland Meyer, a forester who worked on Darkwoods for 37 years. Although now retired, Meyer can’t let go and visits the property most weekends with his wife. NCC has given him a lifetime “ambassador” pass.
We meet at the Duke’s cabin, where Quinn and I stayed in early spring. Enthusiastic and appearing 20 years younger than a retiree, Meyer is wearing a German hunting jacket and a jagdhut, a traditional hunting hat in the Alps. Wandering through lush meadows, we crouch to admire beargrass, elephant head lousewort and cotton grass. Meyer spots a mess of beer bottles sinking into the soft ground and wordlessly collects them. Next we set off toward picturesque Devils Hole Lake, high in the alpine heart of the property. En route, Meyer points to an overgrown skid trail. “There is a stand of old cedar somewhere up that hillside,” he says. I suggest we go exploring, and Meyer instantly agrees, veering off the road and parking amid thick alders.
Pushing our way through a jungle of lush devil’s club, we eventually find the stand. Each tree we stumble upon appears bigger than the last. Scrambling over deadfall, Meyer wraps his arms around one trunk after another and stares upward. “I’m so glad you dragged me back up here,” he says.
We bushwhack out and drive on to the lake. The sun is dropping when we return to the truck. Meyer stares down the valley, toward a distant green mountainside mauled with clear-cuts. A dirt road zigzags up the steep face. “This used to be one of the most gorgeous views on the property,” whispers Meyer, “until I wrecked it. There was nothing I could do. The beetle took over, and the entire hillside was gone in one summer.”
Meyer reminds me of a farmer who has been forced to put down a beloved horse. And that analogy — how a farmer cares for his livestock and land — perhaps best sums up Pluto Darkwoods’ long-standing relationship with the property. There is no denying a deep and abiding care.
During autumn visits to Darkwoods, the Duke was appalled by the occasional appearance of “slob hunters” — people driving around in pickups with guns and beer, blasting away at any animals they came across. Despite being an avid hunter, the Duke banned all hunting on the property.
Five years ago, biologist Michael Proctor began a DNA survey of southern Selkirk grizzly bears, a threatened population he has been studying since 1999. Not only did he find more bears on Darkwoods than expected, but his research also indicates that bears in the region have not interbred with adjacent populations for several generations, perhaps 40 to 60 years. “This is one of the most fragmented and isolated grizzly populations in the province,” says Proctor, which is an enormous conservation concern.
Small, isolated wildlife populations have a hard time surviving in the long run. Bears, with a very low reproductive rate, are particularly vulnerable. Disease, human interactions and other factors can push populations to the point where they cannot recover.
At Darkwoods, Proctor’s preliminary radio telemetry has garnered interesting results, suggesting that bears do not avoid roads like their cousins on adjacent crown land. He believes this is a result of limited traffic and the hunting ban. “My work is not done yet, but it appears as though Pluto Darkwoods’ management has been good for bears,” he says, because the property “has basically acted as an informal wildlife refugium.”
Proctor would like to maintain the motorized hunting ban, to gain a deeper understanding of how bears use habitat and to allow the population to recover further. But his most insightful words are saved for the bigger picture.
“What Darkwoods offers,” he says, “is some much-needed variation in land-management tenure.” In British Columbia, the government owns or manages 94 percent of the land and blanket rules generally apply. “It is incredibly valuable to try different approaches,” says Proctor. “This allows us to learn what works and what doesn’t, to progress our thinking and, ultimately, to improve land-management styles. What we have with Darkwoods is a grand and rare experiment, designed purely by chance. The opportunity exists only because of the land’s unique history.”
It is a sleeting September day when I meet Pat Field in Salmo for a final visit to Darkwoods. Sheets of mist pour down the valley. Roadside poplars are already dropping yellow leaves, and on the high peaks, the first snows have arrived.
We head up Hidden Creek to view some of NCC’s recent efforts at deactivating roads, a complicated process that includes improving drainage ditches and removing dirtcovered bridges. Driving deeper and deeper into the property along narrow, long-abandoned roads, I am once again staggered by the scale of it all. This one valley, which I have not previously visited, is a striking wilderness on its own.
Proctor had told me about the “ripple of pleasant feelings that surged through the biologist community” when NCC’s purchase was announced. Something exceptional is happening in these hidden valleys; over the span of my visits, the word I keep returning to is “hope.” Environmentalists periodically criticize conservation land trusts because they try to be all things to all people. This arises from the simple need to secure funding, which means they shy away from advocacy (what might please an NGO could raise hackles at a rod-and-gun club, and both contribute). But, despite this shortcoming, to comprehend the scale of Darkwoods and then realize that Canadian citizens have essentially pooled their resources to set this land aside for ecological stewardship is powerfully uplifting.
As we bounce along, Field outlines NCC’s draft propertymanagement plan, which has gone up the organization’s lengthy chain of command for approval and will be released at a series of town hall-style meetings later in the week. If everything goes according to schedule after a period of public comment, implementation will start in January 2011. Packed with tables, flow charts, conceptual models and adaptive planning cycles, the 54-page report sets out six primary conservation targets: mountain caribou; hydro-riparian ecosystems; dry interior cedar-hemlock forest; grizzly bears; old-growth cedar-hemlock forest; and rare ecosystems and features. It identifies threats, such as fire, forest harvesting and recreational development, then outlines mitigation strategies.
“We will close 20 percent of the property completely,” says Field, “specifically areas with multiple conservation targets where tree harvest has been completed.” The annual timber cut will be reduced from 55,000 to 10,000 cubic metres, with proceeds helping finance day-to-day operations. Sent to local mills, this wood, in part, represents NCC’s commitment not to adversely affect local economies. Nonmotorized hunting is being considered in a small portion of the Topaz Creek area, but the vast majority of the property will remain off limits, though NCC will loosen restrictions on such non-motorized recreation as hiking and biking.
A new gating system has been installed to manage access, but Field offers some perspective. “If threats to the property were measured on a five-foot ruler, NCC alleviated four feet of threat simply by purchasing Darkwoods. Of the remaining foot, nine inches hinge on cleaning up the existing road network and three inches are related to public access.”
Field slows and points to shoulder-high saplings in the cutblock beside us. Their thin trunks weave and twist like pipe cleaners, the result of heavy winter snow press. “There were times when Roland Meyer would drive all the way up and shake the snow off each one by hand,” he says. “Only care and attention brought them back to life.”
We have reached the end of the road. Beyond, grey cliffs soar upward, and far above, a dusting of snow mixes with the swirling clouds. In a few weeks, the first winter storms will hit, closing the high passes, and Darkwoods will once again retreat from the modern world.
Bruce Kirkby is the author of Sand Dance: By Camel Across Arabia’s Great Southern Desert and The Dolphin’s Tooth: A Decade in Search of Adventure. He lives in Kimberley, B.C.
Photo Club: an exclusive interview with Bruce Kirkby - Follow author and photographer Bruce Kirkby onto the 550 square kilometres of remote valleys, mountains and lakes that make up the Darkwoods land purchase.