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