Park warden Jenny Willson is in a dangerous race for answers that could create an irreparable rift in her own organization.
When Park Warden Jenny Willson initiates a covert inquiry into a proposed ski hill in Yoho National Park, she’s quickly drawn into a web of political, environmental, and criminal intrigue that threatens to tear apart a small B.C. town. Suddenly, neighbour is pitted against neighbour, friend against friend, and family against family.
After a wolverine researcher dies in a mysterious fire, Willson forms an uneasy alliance with an RCMP corporal and an investigative journalist to expose the truth behind the project. But all is not what it seems. In a showdown involving the ski hill proponent, her own agency, and mysterious political puppeteers, Willson must decide if she’s willing to risk her career — and perhaps the lives of herself and those close to her — to reveal what lurks in the shadows.
About the author
Dave Butler is a forester and biologist living in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. His writing and photography have appeared in numerous publications, including explore, Canadian Geographic, and BC Outdoors Magazine. Dave is Director of Sustainability at Canadian Mountain Holidays, and a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Fellow. He lives in Cranbrook, British Columbia.
Excerpt: No Place for Wolverines: A Jenny Willson Mystery (by (author) Dave Butler)
NOVEMBER 24, ONE WEEK EARLIER
The Parks Canada administration building oversaw the town of Banff from an elevated perch south of the Bow River. It was a dominating presence, facing north along the congested length of Banff Avenue toward Cascade Mountain. It spoke of permanence, authority, tradition. Constructed as a Depression-era make-work project, the three-storey structure was completed in 1936 and symbolized Canada’s emerging need to manage the wilderness for people. Built of limestone, with sandstone trim and cedar shakes and surrounded by sweeping gardens, it projected an air of calm control, efficiency, and strong management.
For Park Warden Jenny Willson, the castle-like building sat in stark contrast to the wilderness of Banff National Park. And it represented all she hated about a bureaucracy that often served itself instead of the citizens who paid the bills. She knew there were many good people here dedicated to the park, their efforts valiant despite the system rather than because of it — those weren’t the people she despised. Her disgust was reserved for the men and women whose sole objective was to climb the career ladder, rung by slippery rung, tossing aside their morals and ethics as they did so, who changed directions with each passing political breeze, and who clawed their way up while shovelling steaming piles of blame onto the hapless rung-climbers below them.
Willson paused below the stone archway at the building’s east entrance, her face reflected in the original stained glass panels, one hand gripping a brass door handle worn and discoloured from eighty years of contact with palms and fingers. She’d gone for a bike ride that morning and, because it was her day off, hadn’t bothered with the tan shirt, dark-green pants, and bulletproof vest that she normally wore on duty. Instead, she had quickly pulled on jeans, hiking shoes, and a blue fleece jacket over a flannel shirt. Her long brown hair was pulled back tight in a ponytail.
The last time she’d been in this building, she remembered, two senior officials from Parks Canada’s Calgary office had tried to derail her investigation into wildlife poaching in the park. Despite their attempts to impede her, to prevent her from doing what she knew to be right, Willson had relentlessly chased an American hunter and his accomplices back and forth across the international border. She’d eventually won the race. Then, in classic government style, campaigning politicians took credit for her actions, while one of the two obstructionist bureaucrats resigned quietly and without fanfare. The other crawled up another rung on the government ladder, proof that the Peter principle was alive and well.
Willson took a deep breath. Every time she passed through this door, her life changed in some way, and never for the better. She could walk away from the agency, but to do what? Reluctantly, she pulled open the heavy door and walked down the empty hallway to the office of Banff Chief Park Warden Frank Speer, her footsteps echoing on the tile floor.
A thirty-year veteran of the agency, Speer was one of the few people above Willson in the parks hierarchy whom she truly respected. He’d supported her through the tortuous poaching investigation, putting his career and his pending retirement at risk. In fact, he’d been the only one to stand by her.
Willson pushed open the windowed door to Speer’s office and greeted Pat Scott, a plump, no-nonsense woman in her sixties who’d worked with the chief in one capacity or another since he first became a warden. Her job title was now executive assistant, but she still referred to herself as his secretary. Old habits. Pat was short enough to be the same height standing up or sitting down — or so it seemed to Willson, who towered over her by nearly a foot.
“Hi, Jenny, it’s been a while. The chief ’s waiting for you.” She winked. “Keep up the good work.”
“Thanks, Pat. I appreciate that more than you know.”
Willson entered the inner office and sat down in a creaky old chair facing an older man with a grey crewcut.
“You wanted to see me, Chief?” she asked, stretching her legs out.
Behind the desk, Frank Speer pulled the wire-framed reading glasses off his face and looked up from a stack of documents. Willson noticed the dark circles under his eyes and the creases at the corners of his mouth — exhaustion from the bureaucracy, perhaps?
“Thanks for coming up, Jenny,” he said with a weary smile. “I know how much you love this place.”
“To be honest, Chief, I’d rather be at a kid’s birthday party with balloons and a friggin’ clown than in this place. But I came because you asked me. What’s up?”
“I’m on the horns of a dilemma … and I’m interested in getting your perspective.”
“Okay …” said Willson, intrigued. She took a sip from her travel mug filled with Kicking Horse’s Kick Ass coffee, strong and black. Until the poaching investiga¬tion, she’d consumed anything that looked or smelled like coffee, be it from a fast-food place, a plastic pod, or even a jar of powdered instant; she hadn’t cared. But hanging out with a coffee snob had forced her to see the error of her ways. Kick Ass was the only coffee for her. It reflected her approach to life and to her job. Now, she would kick ass whenever possible.
“Before I start,” Speer said, “you should know that what I’m about to tell you is not only highly unusual, but also extremely confidential.”
“I love a mystery, Chief. Lay it on me.”
“Well, do you remember when we talked earlier in the fall about the rumour of a ski area being proposed near the boundary of Yoho Park?”
“I do. But that was just a rumour, wasn’t it?”
“Are you serious?”
“I’m afraid so. We now have an application. I’m sur¬prised you haven’t heard, actually.”
“I’m not much for water-cooler gossip. But why the hell would a proposal even be accepted? Wasn’t the Parks Act changed back in 2000 so no new ski areas would be allowed?”
Speer leaned back in his chair, his hands linked behind his neck. “Ah, yes. It so happens that our federal government made another change to that same act about three months ago. The change was buried in a mammoth omnibus bill with everything in it from soup to nuts, and it now allows for no more than two ski areas per mountain park. So, any park with one or none is now open to proposals.”
“Are you kidding me?” said Willson. “Why the hell didn’t anybody notice?”
“People noticed. By the time they did, though, it had been jammed through Parliament with no discussion or debate. That’s what happens with a majority gov¬ernment. A few senators raised a stink when it reached them, but they were outvoted by their colleagues. It’s a done deal.”
Willson shook her head. “Un-friggin’-believable. Do you think they knew there was a proponent out there in the weeds, waiting to drop this idea on them?”
“I don’t know,” said Speer. “But you do have to won¬der. Regardless, an American developer from Idaho — a guy named Stafford Austin — made a joint proposal to Parks Canada and the government of B.C. shortly after the legislation was amended. He wants to develop a new ski area in Collie Creek, on the northwest boundary of Yoho. He’s calling it Top of the World Resort. Part of it’s inside the park, part outside. That’s why he had to approach both governments.”
“I know Collie Creek,” said Willson. “There are back¬country huts in the two adjacent valleys, and Collie Creek sits between the two. We used to ski and hike there when I lived in Golden. And didn’t we recently approve a new CMC hut in that area?”
“Yes, we did. When Austin dropped the idea on the two governments, they tried to keep it quiet. That didn’t last long. The Mountain Club members were seriously pissed when they got wind of it. But Austin’s already telling the media there’ll be millions of dollars invested, more people will visit the park, Golden will get a whack of new jobs, and its reputation as a world-class winter playground will grow. He’s selling it as the best thing since the internet.”
“But it’s in the middle of nowhere. What the hell is he thinking?”
“You know the drill. It’ll be gondolas and lift towers and ski runs and a resort base — potentially even a townsite. People will come from all over the world to ski there, he says. On paper, the project looks damn impressive.”
“Sounds to me like a dumbass idea for all sorts of reasons,” Willson said. “No one’s taking it seriously, are they?”
“You know how these things can take on a life of their own. Once the review processes start and politicians get involved, it’s like an avalanche, gathering speed and power, burying everything in its path. This one is already moving, and I’m getting strong indications from my sources in Ottawa that federal ministers are interested. And with the parks legislation out of the way, it’s suddenly become a possibility.”
“Forgive a stupid question, Chief,” said Willson, “but why are we talking about this? It’s a problem for Yoho Park, not us, right?”
Speer smiled, but there was no warmth in it. “You know that Jack Church is the park superintendent for Yoho. You may not know that his father was my first boss when I joined the Warden Service thirty-four years ago. I have all the respect in the world for Church Senior, but I don’t quite feel the same about Church Junior.”
“Because he’s one of those ladder-climbing pissants that you and I hate so much, and he’ll do whatever our bosses tell him to do, no matter how asinine.… I trust you won’t repeat that.”
“Of course not,” said Willson. She wondered where this rant was leading.
“Well, my sources have already raised questions about the ski area proponent,” Speer said, “about his background and his ability to make the project happen — the kinds of questions whispered behind cupped hands rather than asked aloud. And there’s also a pile of questions about the impact a resort would have on the park, on its environmental and recreation values. But Church seems willing to ignore them all. From what I hear, he’s rapidly become the project’s biggest cheerleader inside Parks.”
“What does it matter what he thinks?” asked Willson. “Won’t all those questions be answered by the federal and provincial review processes? The ultimate decisions will be made above him, won’t they?”
“Some, but not all of them. From what I can see, Jack’s too much of a keener to understand what he’s getting into … or what he could unwittingly do to the park.”
“I get that a ski area would have huge negative impacts on the park, but why are you concerned about Church?”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about him, really. It’s all about the park. But he’s a symptom of a much deeper problem in the system. The more people there are like him, the less likely it is a project like this will get a thorough, unbiased assessment.”
For those who like mystery novels with a strong outdoor component and a setting in national parks.
Reviewing the Evidence blog
[A] fast-paced story … [that] talks about a debate that concerns a lot of us: environmental conservation versus economic development.
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