A groundbreaking ceremony in the Upper Clearwater Valley on Saturday for the TRU Wells Gray Education and Research Station reunited old "parkies" with ties to the area dating to the 1950s and '60s.
Renowned painter and naturalist Robert Bateman turned the first sod for the new centre. Designed by Blake St. Peter, a TRU architectural science student, the facility is expected to be ready for operation next year.
"What we're doing here couldn't be more important," Bateman said, surrounded by more than 60 people in a forest clearing a short distance from the community hall.
"It could change thousands of lives, so this little piece of sod is kind of an important beginning."
The ceremony was held on Yorke Edwards Day, an occasion to honour the late forester and park naturalist who laid much of the groundwork for understanding Wells Gray's natural heritage.
On his first visit to the park, Bateman brought celebrity profile and spoke passionately at Clearwater secondary school and in the park about an urgent need to strengthen understanding of and human bonds with the natural world.
Edwards is credited with spearheading nature interpretation in B.C. parks more than 50 years ago, setting up programs and "nature houses" for public education.
"He basically changed the face of this valley and what we know about it," said Trevor Goward, a lichenologist, member of the Wells Gray World Heritage committee and former park naturalist. Edwards worked closely with retired biologist Ralph Ritcey, who attended the event.
"They published many papers over the years and basically put this park on the map."
Coincidentally - or perhaps not so coincidentally given their common interest - Bateman knew Edwards when he was a teen growing up in Ontario.
"We were kind of a weird, special generation back in the 1940s and '50s," Bateman said of a young group to which he once belonged, the Toronto Intermediate Naturalists. He worked as a "joe boy" in Algonquin provincial park, where scientists such as Edwards undertook field studies at the first research station of its kind in Ontario.
Despite tremendous population and technological growth since those days, a knowledge of and affinity for the wilderness is not as common as it once was when people lived closer to the land.
"Participation in nature is going the other way," Bateman said. Fewer families and young people are visiting parks every year. When they do, kids are distracted by electronic devices and hardly look out the window, he said.
"So we have to turn this around."
Biologist Tom Dickinson, TRU's dean of science, retraced the evolution of the research station, which originated with a park master plan in the 1980s and the now defunct group Friends of Wells Gray Park.
As Cariboo College evolved into a university, the idea of a research centre grew more viable. A site was found and donated parcels were added through the years, but visiting students and faculty had to make do with an aging rural schoolhouse from the 1930s as a dorm.
Although it wasn't a priority for the university, there were enough funds two years ago to start the process, Dickinson said.
Yet when the project was tendered, bids were too far out of line with what was affordable, so Dickinson is relying on generosity and community goodwill to bring it together. He said other institutions, including UBC and UBC Okanagan, are interested in using the research centre, too.
A longer-term vision would have the centre offering interpretation to park visitors.
Ric Careless, executive director of a new organization called B.C. Spaces for Nature, used the occasion to rally support for a parks system he said has been heavily eroded.
B.C. has the largest parks system in North America, receiving more visits than all other provincial parks in the country combined, yet the $40-million budget is the same as it was more than 40 years ago, Careless said.
"What we want to do is reconnect British Columbians with their parks. We have one of the finest systems in the world. We need to realize it's what makes us unique and so special."