The Origins of Forest Management in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC

Last year, I published an article in BC Studies on the origins of forest management policy for Vancouver’s Stanley Park titled “Improving Nature: Remaking Stanley Park’s Forest, 1888-1931”. This article is based on research from my dissertation on the environmental history of Stanley Park.

Insect Invasion in Stanley Park

Newspaper cartoon depicting insect attack on Stanley Park in 1914.

As a result of the threat of fire and a series of devastating insect and fungus outbreaks in the early twentieth century, the Vancouver Park Board employed the expertise of federal forest entomologists to improve the visual condition of Stanley Park in order to conform with a more aesthetically pleasing park landscape, consistent with popular expectations of idealized wilderness. By 1931, the board adopted a formal forest management policy based on decades of work by the Department of Agriculture’s entomological division that included brush clearance, tree-topping, Douglas fir reforestation, and aerial insecticide spraying. These policies remade Stanley Park’s forest in an attempt to improve nature in the park.

The article is now available for digital download and I’d be glad to hear what you think. Please download a copy and send me your thoughts, comments, and criticisms. You can post your comments here or send me a private message.

Download the article here.

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4 Responses

  1. Interesting article. I took a similar approach in researching the park for an enviro history grad course, (before the Vancouver Museum’s Stanley Park exhibit, I might add). I found the animal history of the park especially fascinating, and even more bizarre than that of the forest.

    One question I have is why you think Vancouver took the approach it did, ie, of trying to preserve the illusion of a “natural” park instead of making it Olmsteadesque. The conclusion i drew was that a big part of what was perceived the value of nature was the view. Certainly there was nothing special about a forest, virginal or otherwise, around here in the 1880s. I seem to recall in the reporting of Stanley Park’s opening that the mayor of Victoria was there and he and Oppenheimer were comparing the vistas from Stanley Park and a park in his city. Even today, this factor looms so large in Vancouver city planning, with all the glass condo towers reflecting nature instead of blocking it, height restrictions, view corridors, etc., that all together make this a visually bland city, but with some great views.

    I’m also curious if you have any opinions on SP management policies today. I don’t think they try and hide the fact that there’s a huge forest management team and a hefty budget to maintain the park, but there’s still the ostensible imperative to keep it as “natural” as possible. For example, letting Beaver Lake dry up because it’s choking from the lily pads (placed there by people), or leaving much of the debris from the 2006 storm to rot on the forest floor. Not to mention the futile campaigns to get people to stop feeding the racoons because they’re somehow “wild.” (They are of course wild in the sense that they’re not housepets, but they’re no more part of nature than the rats in alleys or the bedbugs in skidrow hotels). Except for the Beaver Lake example, I’m not sure how I’d do things differently if I were in charge, but I’m always curious about how lessons from the past can or should inform the present.

    • Lani:

      Thanks so much for reading the article. If you’re interested in the animal history of the park, I have more recent research on that topic that I presented at the Canadian Parks for Tomorrow Conference in Calgary in 2008. You can listen to that paper here. Or you can download the conference paper here. This paper builds upon a similar argument to my BC Studies article.

      Your question about why the Park Board tried to preserve a “natural” or naturalistic landscape for Stanley Park instead of opting for a more obviously sculptured landscape (in Olmstedian fashion) is a very good one. I think there were several factors that led the Park Board down this path. The first is that the forest of Stanley Park obviously pre-dated the creation of the park. Vancouverites and the Park Board felt early on that there was already a pre-existing natural landscape worth saving. This is evident in early concerns over forest fires in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Even Olmsted himself saw value in preserving wild landscapes. He certainly made this clear in his case to create Yosemite National Park and in his work on Montreal’s Mount Royal Park. Even though Olmsted designed the landscape of Mount Royal, he did so in a manner that would preserve a naturalistic landscape effect. The second reason I think the Park Board attempted to construct a preserved wilderness landscape in Stanley Park is because of the proximity of the park to the city. The “naturalness” of the landscape was all the more valuable as a tourist attraction and oasis of nature because of its proximity to the city. This would certainly have implications later in the twentieth-century for the magnificent views of the park treasured by Vancouverites who live high above the city in glass skyscrapers, but I doubt landscape views from afar were a big concern prior to the construction of Hotel Vancouver (which would have been one of the only buildings in the city with a very clear aerial view of Stanley Park). Views of the park were, however, a concern for the wealthier residents of the West End in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When Theodore Ludgate attempted to construct a sawmill on Deadman’s Island in 1899, there was great uproar among those living in this community, because the sawmill threatened to obstruct their view of the park. Finally, the third reason I think the Park Board sought to preserve a naturalistic landscape in Stanley Park is related to the perceived antiquity of large conifers. As I argue in another article, the large trees of Stanley Park held tremendous symbolic significance for Vancouverites. We only have to look at the recent controversy over the fate of the Hollow Tree to witness a contemporary version of this kind of attitude.

      There are probably many other reasons why the board took this approach to forest management in Stanley Park. Regarding the current state of forest management in Stanley Park, you can read a draft version of the latest forest management plan for the park here. The plan has since been amended and approved by the Park Board. Overall, the plan seems to balance human modification with natural regeneration in a satisfactory manner. The park has always been a hybrid landscape, composed by both human and non-human actors. I think that remains evident in this latest plan.

      Thanks again for reading the article. I had a chance to take a look over your very impressive blog on Vancouver history. It looks great!

  2. Thanks Sean. I checked out your other articles. I like your use of photos; i compared the before and after typhoon freda aerials with google earth and notice how what looks to be the densest section of the forest is the part that was most devastated by Freda. You might know this, but the Big Cedar postcard you used is of the National Geographic tree, which finally toppled in a wind storm a year or so ago.

    I wondered what happened with the crow hunting. I have an article about a crow hunt that was organized in 1903, but didn’t follow up that story. It seems the biggest rationale for human intervention in the park is that nature on its own is dangerous, so to let hunters in there into the ’60s is amazing.

    i looked up Oppenheimer’s speech opening the park. My point was more about the view from the park than of the park, and this quote suggests at least Oppenheimer thought this: “But in natural advantages with every charm of ocean, mountain, and forest presenting themselves in a thousand ever changing forms as we drive round our recreation grounds it is unequalled in the world.” In his speech, Victoria’s mayor pointed out that SP’s advantage over Beacon Hill was that the mountain views from SP were of Canadian mountains, whereas only American mountains were visible from Beacon Hill. Especially because SP was (and still is) one of the main publicly accessible waterfront spaces in Van, it was a place to see what lies beyond the city, without the city intruding on that view.

    My understanding of the Ludgate affair was that the stiffest opposition was rooted in the same impulse that made preserving SP as a park in the first place, which was to keep saw mills and related industrial activity (and proletarians) away from the West End to ensure high property values there.

    I hope you plan to put this into a book. There’s a lot of great material here and you have a clear writing style that a book would appeal to a general audience as well as academics. The Stanley Park Explorer has tons of great historical anecdotes, but it’s pretty old, falls short on context and analysis, and has no footnotes.

    • I completely agree with your point about the views from Stanley Park. Oppenheimer and others on the opening day in September 1888 did indeed highlight the mountain and ocean views from the perimeter of the park. Views from Stanley Park were definitely a main attraction of the park (even to this day).

      Regarding the postcard of the Big Tree/National Geographic tree, I did know that it had fallen in the 2006/07 storms, but I wasn’t entirely sure if it was the same tree in the postcard. I had suspicions, but I couldn’t be sure. Thanks for pointing this out.

      The Ludgate affair did include those other issues you mentioned. Views of the park were only one part of controversy. I know that many of the contributors to the fundraiser to send a delegation to Ottawa to protest the construction of the sawmill lived on Seaton Street in the West End where they would have had a view of Coal Harbour, Deadman’s Island, and Stanley Park.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the other article. I do hope to have this research published as a book in the future. Once it is available, I’ll be sure to post a notice to this website.

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