Review: Wilderness and Waterpower

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Wilderness and Waterpower

Review by Heather Green (University of Alberta)

Published on The Otter-NiCHE (May, 2014).

Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles. Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff NationalPark Became a Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2013. 267 pp. $34.95  (paperback) ISBN: 9781552386347.

Wilderness and Waterpower combines parks history and history of resource development to remind readers that the development of parks is much more complicated than scenic beauty and recreational use.


Examining the long process of hydroelectric development on the Bow River within modern day Banff National Park, Christopher Armstrong (York, emeritus) and H.V. Nelles (McMaster) remind their readers that parks do not exist in a natural and isolated state, but that they are created through a multilayered political process involving many players. In Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became a Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir, Armstrong and Nelles offer a narrative which traces the history of how Banff National Park and its Bow River were recreated for the production and storage of hydroelectricity in southern Alberta. Through twelve detailed chapters, Armstrong and Nelles bring together the perspectives of the Calgary Power Company, various branches of the federal and provincial governments, the city of Calgary, and the Nakoda tribe in a battle over hydroelectricity that persisted over 50 years.

Previous histories of national parks have tended to be social-environmental histories which usually examine issues of land appropriation, as well as fabricated nature, gender, class, and race. Alan MacEachern’s Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970 (2001) and John Sandlos’s Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (2008) are only two examples of such studies. Wilderness and Waterpower offers a new perspective of park development through presenting a fairly bureaucratic history of resource development within a national park. Armstrong and Nelles spend the majority of this book analysing the arguments presented from those in favor of hydroelectric development on the Bow (the Calgary Power Company and the Department of the Interior) and those opposing development (Parks Branch, Nakoda band, and conservationists). Through very detailed research and access to company and government collections, the authors are careful to point out that the battle of the Bow was not as simple as clear-cut “sides.” They also focus much of their attention on infighting within both federal and provincial branches of government.

Nelles and Armstrong have co-authored previous works on related topics, including Monopoly’s Moment: the Organization and Regulation of Canadian Utilities, 1830-1930 (1988) a history of public utilities in Canada and, with Matthew Evenden, they published The River Returns: an Environmental History of the Bow (2009). H.V. Nelles has also published The Politics of Development: Forests, Mines, and Hydroelectric Power in Ontario, 1849-1941 (1974). In Wilderness and Waterpower, the authors are perceptive in their understanding of the political and bureaucratic complexities of developing a hydroelectric production facility. They are well versed in issues of utility development, but they also present a clear explanation of the seasonal water flow of the Bow River and the obstacles this natural cycle placed on the Calgary Power Company.

In this work, the authors seek to answer two questions: Why did Banff have to be altered to accommodate hydroelectric storage? And, how did the production and consumption of electricity in southern Alberta shape Banff National Park? (ix). To answer these questions, this work is divided into 12 chapters organized by theme. The first two chapters begin by setting the stage for what became a recurring battle over the use of the Bow River. The authors discuss the natural aspects of the river itself, the 1910-1920 Calgary Power Company (CPC) proposals for production of hydroelectricity, and the first transmission of hydroelectricity on May 21, 1911. The third through fifth chapters are the most insightful, as they move beyond the walls of government offices and into the public, specifically onto the Nakoda reserve and into the park boundaries. The authors highlight the struggle between the Nakoda band and the CPC over land use rights to the property surrounding the confluence of the Kananaskis River and the Bow. This presented one of the first instances the federal government faced in which fear of Nakoda action pressured the Department of Indian Affairs to demand the CPC agree to Nakoda terms. This is also an excellent example of the breakdown between local government officials and those in Ottawa (48). Chapters four and five detail the company’s need to redirect the flow of the Bow River and the public debate that arose between those who favored wilderness protection and power development. Inspired by Richard White’s Organic Machine: the Remaking of the Columbia River (1996), the authors discuss the merger of nature and technology and the way that these intertwined to a point in which they were inseparable. Chapters seven through ten analyzed the various developments which occurred between 1930 to 1950 which eventually saw the Spray Lakes storage plant approved and carried out, as well as the debate between public versus private power ownership in the 1930s and 1940s. In the final chapter, Armstrong and Nelles discuss the transfer of the CPC from hydroelectric production to coal-based power production.

This work contributes to the historical discussion of parks creation, wilderness versus technology, and the connection between both of these themes. In answering the proposed questions, Armstrong and Nelles delve into an analysis of the changing meaning of parks from the turn of the century to the late 20th century. At the time of Horseshoe Falls plant development in the 1910s, Harkin and other Parks Branch members also thought of parks as both a natural tourist destination and as a means to produce revenue. However, by the 1920s, Parks managers had changed their view of parks as a wilderness destination that should remain undeveloped by humankind. Support from conservation groups, such as the Canadian National Park Association, encouraged the federal government to amend the National Park Acts to ensure that resource development could not occur within the boundaries of a national park. At the same time, the federal government also supported private capital resource development. This is particularly engendered in the amendment to the Parks Act in 1930 which carved Spray Lakes out of the boundaries of Banff National Park to ensure that this area could be developed (74).

There are few shortcomings to this work. Because the authors chose to take a thematic approach there is a lack of clarity in terms of chronology. There are instances where periodization is unclear; for example, it is not until halfway through the first chapter that the authors provide the date range marking the beginning of hydroelectric production. Further, while this is a work with environmental history themes, the authors dedicate little space discussing impacts of altering the Bow River on the river and on the surrounding environment. Finally, with a focus on government and company actions and perspectives, readers learn very little about the people most impacted by the development of hydroelectricity and rerouting of the Bow River, ie. local residents and the Nakoda.

Despite these minor shortcomings, I recommend this book to anyone interested in energy studies, environmental studies, geography, resource management, and historians of the environment, parks, and provincial politics. I believe that readers in the general public with an interest in Banff National Park will also enjoy this work. The book is accompanied by a rich array of photos from the Glenbow Archive, as well as maps, charts, and graphs that help readers contextualize the location of the hydroelectric developments discussed in the text. The authors provide convincing evidence to support their argument that hydroelectric generation and storage “directly reshaped the ecology of parts of the park and indirectly led to a series of boundary redefinitions on its eastern borders” (xvi). Finally, Wilderness and Waterpower will expand readers’ knowledge on a variety of historical issues from parks development, utility control and ownerships, political struggles, and the evolving meanings and understanding of nature and/or wilderness in an increasingly metropolitan area.

Heather Green is a PhD student in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta. Heather’s doctoral research focuses on the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the Klondike Gold Rush in the central Yukon.

Citation: Heather Green. “Review of Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles’s Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff NationalPark Became a Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2013.” The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. (May, 2014).


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