Terri-Jane Yuzda

Look Way Up to the Cradle of Life on Earth
Coral Reef in the Sky
From left, a trilobite fossil and a quarry demonstrate why day trippers love to visit the Burgess Shale, near Field, B.C. Below is an artist's depection of an opabinia specimen

Despite several false funding starts, the Yoho-Burgess Shale Foundation keeps on believing in its vision - and in the awe-inspiring fossil record that spawned it.

Freelance Columnist

Next time you're driving through Yoho National Park on Highway 1, pull over at Field, B.C. Then gaze up towards Wapta Mountain.

You'll see spectacular escarpments, coniferous forests and, just around the corner, the cradle of life on earth. The magnificent Burgess Shale sits high on a mountain ridge, between Wapta Mountain and Mount Field, 90 kilometres west of Banff. "There's an emotional charge you feel when you walk up there," says Alf Fischer, P.Geol., president of the Yoho-Burgess Shale Foundation.

Mr. Fischer is a Calgary petroleum geologist and a principal of Niven Fischer Energy Management Inc. He's also an inveterate hiker who has been leading day trippers to the Rockies for three decades.

And still the experience sends chills down his spine. He says it's mind-boggling to be reminded that millions of invertebrate fossils from the Cambrian period, when every major animal group was spawned in an explosion of life, were perfectly preserved by a mountaintop coral reef.

"To think it's something similar to what you see when you're diving off the Florida Keys. It's so close to the dawn of life and it's right on our back doorstep," he says with a grin.

The Burgess Shale was once a coral reef beneath a tropical sea. It's been world famous since the beginning of the 20th century and a source of awe to scientists and amateurs alike.

The Foundation's Struggles
One of those fascinated mortals is Alf Fischer. Until about three years ago, however, his interest was strictly pleasure-related. But in 2000, he was asked to spearhead a fundraising campaign for the Field-based Yoho-Burgess Shale Foundation, which protects this hoard of ancient treasure.

Since then he's been through more ups and downs than a rock climber. The initial goal was to raise $4 million to build a discovery centre and museum on leased land on the highway near Field.

Revenues from the proposed museum, as well as a nearby service station owned by the foundation, were to finance capital improvements to the Yoho-Burgess Shale Earth and Science Learning Centre, which shares space with pupils in Field Elementary School.

"We see our primary mandate as education," Mr. Fischer explains. "The purpose of the discovery centre would also be to fund learning centre educational programs. That way we wouldn't have to depend on donors." Things got off to a splendid start. A corporate angel swooped in with $1.5 million almost immediately. At the donor's urging, Mr. Fischer set about streamlining and reorganizing the foundation's board of directors, a lengthy and somewhat painful process.

Angels Fly Off
The new board was finally in place - and then the donor pulled out. "There was a major corporate restructuring," Mr. Fischer laments. "It wiped out the money for our gift."

Back at square one, the foundation asked for fresh proposals from the corporate sector.

One Alberta-based group made a tempting offer: to provide $1.7 million in cash and a loan guarantee for the remainder of learning centre construction costs, plus build a museum for $7 million.

But regulatory snags interfered. Parks Canada, a staunch supporter of the foundation, ruled that work couldn't proceed until Field's sewage system was upgraded.

By the time the $6 million sewage system upgrade was approved, the foundation's new corporate partner had lost interest because of economic changes in the tourist industry and bolted.

A subsequent feasibility study indicated further problems. The Burgess Shale Discovery Centre would only turn a profit if visitors were to pay an up-front admission fee before gaining access to washrooms and other facilities.

It's a European model utilized by museums from Cape St. Vincent to Vladivostok. But the Parks Canada mandate is to provide free facilities for visitors. As well, park officials would prefer to see free access to about 20 per cent of the exhibits.


For futher information on the Burgess Shale, sponsorship, the foundation and more, visit www.burgess-shale.bc.ca

Still Optimistic
That's where things stand now - another stalemate.

Not that the outlook is all together bleak. Corporate donors such as Suncor Inc. have been generous in their support of the learning centre.

"And we still have a business opportunity in upgrading the service station. It needs to be demolished and rebuilt," says Mr. Fischer, who continues to be gung-ho. That's the plan as it stands.

"We can set aside our revenues and hopefully build the discovery centre and museum in the years to come," Mr. Fischer says.

Sounds reasonable. The Burgess Shale has been a neighbourhood fixture for 505 million years. A few more shouldn't hurt.

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