This year marks an important anniversary in our City’s history.
It was 30 years ago, in August 1986, that the Kerry Wood Nature Centre officially opened.
The KWNC is many things to Red Deer – a highly popular community and educational centre, the gateway to a unique wilderness area in the heart of an urban centre and a fitting tribute to one of Alberta’s most accomplished naturalists and writers.
The recorded history of the site goes back 130 years.
In the fall of 1885, John Jost Gaetz and his mother, Catherine Gaetz, took out adjoining homesteads on the northeast side of Red Deer. There were two beautiful small oxbow lakes on their land.
The Gaetz’s had a strong appreciation for nature. They made a decision to neither cultivate nor log the woods and wetlands surrounding the lakes. They also welcomed others to enjoy the area and to use it as a place for recreation and enjoyment of unspoiled nature.
The Alberta Natural History Society was formed in Central Alberta after the turn of the last century. The ‘Gaetz Lakes’ became one of their favourite spots for excursions. In the spring of 1922, the Society asked J.J. Gaetz to consider designating the west half of Section 22 as a bird sanctuary. He readily agreed.
Consequently, in June 1924, the land surrounding the Gaetz Lakes was officially designated as a Dominion Bird Sanctuary. It was the first place in Alberta to get such as designation.
The killing, hunting, capturing, injuring, destroying and/or molesting of migratory and game birds was expressly prohibited by the federal government.
One person who worked particularly hard to maintain and protect the Sanctuary was Edgar ‘Kerry’ Wood. He had been born in New York City on June 2nd, 1907 (i.e. 109 years ago tomorrow).
However, he had quickly made Red Deer and its natural surroundings his beloved home as soon as he moved here with his family in 1918.
Although Wood was still very young, he was appointed as a Dominion Migratory Bird Officer to help give some authority to his work in the protected area.
In June 1950, a party of City workmen left a fire unattended. It quickly spread into the Sanctuary. A group of volunteers, led by Wood, successfully fought to bring the blaze under control and to save the Sanctuary’s woods from destruction.
The incident made it clear that new and more stringent legal protections were needed.
Wood wrote a popular book, The Sanctuary, to publicize the incredible value of the site. Consequently, the provincial government was persuaded to designate the area as a provincial wildlife park.
Nevertheless, the threats continued.
In 1966, there was a proposal to turn the Sanctuary into an amusement park. Fortunately, a sustained public outcry killed the plans. In the early 1970s, a poorly maintained storm sewer created a large gully that caused heavy silting into the Second Gaetz Lake. Again, a public outcry led to attempts to control the damage.
In the early 1980s, comprehensive plans were made to include the area in the new Waskasoo Park. The Sanctuary was permanently designated as a nature preserve and wilderness area.
The Waskasoo Park planners felt that public education remained one of the best means of ensuring the survival of the Sanctuary in its natural state.
Hence, a series of walking trails were carefully constructed around the outer portions of the park.
Moreover, a natural history interpretive centre was constructed on an old hayfield on the north end of the First Gaetz Lake. There was no hesitation in naming the interpretive centre after Kerry Wood, as a fitting recognition of all of his work in saving the Sanctuary and educating the public about the enormous value of natural areas.
Today, the KWNC provides the public with information about the Sanctuary and the natural history of the region.
It also provides a central control point of access into the main part of the Sanctuary. The Centre is easily one of the most popular public facilities in Red Deer and across Central Alberta. It also provides a tremendous legacy for Red Deer and for many generations to come.