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  • Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became a Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir by Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles
  • Stéphane Castonguay (bio)
Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became a Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir. By Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2013. Pp. xviii+ 267. $41.95.

Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles have published two books on the Bow River: The Painted Valley (2007) and, with Matthew Evenden, The River Returns (2009). Historians of technology are mostly familiar with their Monopoly’s Moment (research for the book, published in 1986, provided the initial material for Wilderness and Waterpower), a study of the utilities industry and urbanization in Canada. So why write (or read) a third book focusing on the growing urban demand for electricity in southern Alberta and the engineering of the Bow River to improve the transformation of waterpower? The fact that this engineering takes place within Banff, the first Canadian national park (1885) and one of the four units created in 1930 from the division of the Rocky Mountain Parks, evokes the recurring conflict between conservationists and preservationists, the latter well represented by the policies of Canada’s Parks Branch, with its emphasis on the protection of natural beauty. Those familiar with stories involving these protagonists also expect the conservationists to impose their worldview and implement their technological solutions with success, albeit with consequent and sometimes unforeseen environmental changes.

Despite this sense of déjà-vu, Wilderness and Power undertakes a minute reconstruction of the business and political decisions surrounding the extension of the hydroelectric system of Calgary Power Company, cast within a narrative structured around the tensions between path dependence and policy hardening. On the one hand, Calgary Power decided to build a technical system whose capacity to produce and deliver electricity was based on the hydropower potential of the Bow River watershed. The formation of storage reservoirs appeared as the best solution to alleviate the irregularity of seasonal water flow, not only because it was the cheapest and fastest way to produce electricity, but also because Calgary Power had from the outset rejected fossil-fuel combustion as an alternative source for energy production in a coal-rich province. Because of these initial decisions, the installation of hydroelectric facilities on the territory of the Rocky Mountain Parks and the redrawing of the park’s boundaries appeared to be a necessity.

On the other hand, Calgary Power faced staunch opposition from the state bureaucracy, especially within the Department of the Interior, where Parks Branch officials could muster the support of different users of the park’s natural amenities, such as the Alpine Club of Canada and the Canadian National Parks Association, despite wrangling with the engineers of the Water Branch, a fellow agency. As wilderness preservation became the [End Page 1011] raison d’être of their agency and they came to perceive the inviolability of the national parks system as being at stake, bureaucrats of the Parks Branch launched a fierce battle against projects that threatened the integrity of Banff National Park, both in terms of its boundaries and its wilderness.

The Canadian Pacific Railway sided with Parks Branch officials because the profitability of its activities depended on the scenic surroundings of its hotel and golf course, which could be spoiled by power development projects. These tensions were sometimes tempered, sometimes stiffened, by a political climate that involved negotiations with the Nakoda people and the Department of Indian Affairs, constitutional feuds between federal and provincial governments—especially related to shared jurisdiction over lands and waterpowers and negotiations over the transfer of Alberta’s natural resources to the provincial government in the 1920s—and the possibility for state control over power development in a context of public demand for rural electrification. Wartime conditions and the energy requirement of the Alberta Nitrogen Company for the munitions industry turned out to be more decisive for the overall engineering of the watershed and the park than the lobby of local businessmen and politicians who regularly expressed their fear of a potential power shortage for the City of Calgary.

Yet, in the 1950s, Calgary Power left the Bow and ceased to exercise undue pressure...