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Deep in the heart of the geopark

The rocks around Saint John tell many stories. A billion years worth according to the tagline of Stonehammer Geopark, conceptual aegis for a 2,500 sq.

The rocks around Saint John tell many stories. A billion years worth according to the tagline of Stonehammer Geopark, conceptual aegis for a 2,500 sq. km swath of southern New Brunswick that gathers in earth-science features as diverse as Precambrian stromatolites, Cambrian lava flows, Ordovician trilobites, Carboniferous sea caves, Triassic flower-pots, the world's highest tides, infamous reversing falls, the fault along which Africa and South America parted ways, and a beach where Pleistocene glaciers made the Atlantic Ocean's acquaintance some 15,000 years ago.

This litany of geosites is rivalled only by the ways in which one can experience them, including hiking, biking, kayaking, rock-climbing and ziplining—not to mention plumbing the cultural and historical milieus inherent to each in local museums, galleries, and markets. It's the latter that lie at the heart of the geopark concept: landscape and geomorphology dictate where humans settle and how; they dictate the resources extracted and the energy used; they dictate the food that's available and how it is gathered, cultivated and consumed; they even dictate the art and architecture generated. In other words, the rocks beneath our feet are responsible for the convergences of land and labour upon which a community turns.

Defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a unified area with geological heritage of international significance, a geopark leverages that heritage to promote awareness of key issues facing society. By referencing planetary dynamics, a geopark can highlight geological threats as a way to aid communities in preparing mitigation (if Mt. Vesuvius were in a geopark, for example, Pompeii may have had an evacuation strategy). Likewise a geopark's paleontological novelties may include records of past climate change that serve to inform on present trends, reinforce the need for sustainable use of natural resources while promoting ecological and landscape integrity. By putting a piece of the Earth into context for the multiple stakeholders who live there, geoparks suggest a pride-of-place model for green tourism at the regional level. Just what a planetary doctor ordered.

The geopark movement began in 2000 with four areas in Europe. In 2004, with ad hoc support from UNESCO, European and Chinese geopark groups merged to form the Global Geopark Network (GGN), blossoming in only a decade to 100 parks spanning 30 countries, mostly in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, with hundreds more vying for approval. Not all will receive it, and not all that do will stay. "Ironically, geoparks don't stand still. There's a regular validation process," notes Patrick McKeever, secretary of the International Geoscience Program for UNESCO. "If we don't see the community involved, working hard, and benefitting from a geopark, it tells us it's not functioning, and that could lead to delisting."

Stonehammer became the GGN's first North American member in 2010. With so many geological epochs represented, a landscape shaped by glacier and sea, a celebrated history of geological exploration, and industry and tourism threading it all, Stonehammer was also a fitting host for the 6th International UNESCO Conference on Geoparks this September, where some 450 delegates gathered to compare notes on the current network and watch the earnest presentations of aspiring geoparks from around the globe.

"The ability to link a lot of things on the landscape with a community and its culture, heritage and economy is a big idea," says Dr. Godfrey Nowlan, chair of the Canadian National Committee for Geoparks. "Areas that need social and economic development can benefit hugely. China has successfully used geoparks to develop its more remote areas and engage local cultural communities."

Among the Saint John aspirants was a remote area whose ascent seemed especially tectonic: Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia, which began its application less than two years before (other such groups might labour on for a decade), was being considered for one of the handful of new geoparks designated at each conference. Nowlan, whose job it is to shepherd Canada's proposals, had been bullish on its chances. "What they have in Tumbler Ridge is phenomenal," he notes. "Few other places in Canada are as paleontologically rich and geologically diverse in such a small area."

Indeed. With its Rocky Mountain landscape, multitudinous waterfalls, abundant dinosaur trackways, diversity of other fossils, celebrated Peace Region Paleontological Research Centre, outreach educators and interpreters, network of trails, litany of outdoor activities, and a nascent wind-turbine industry buffering its boom-and-bust coal-mining heritage, Tumbler was a veritable poster child of the movement's credo of globally significant geology, sustainable tourism potential, stakeholder cooperation, and innovation — i.e., geopark gold.

Still, it wasn't a shoo-in. Current geoparks mostly represent landscapes that have been explored for centuries, while Tumbler remains very much a frontier.

"We're still exploring," says Dr. Charles Helm, the Tumbler Ridge family physician, hiker, and fossil-finder who engineered and spearheaded its proposal. "And our proposal was strengthened by things we discovered after the UNESCO assessors visited this past summer — new caves, new dinosaur trackways, one of the largest clams in the world, lobsters from the Triassic."

He needn't have worried. Tumbler Ridge became North America's second designated geopark, joining Africa's first in helping the network live up to its lofty adjective of "global." Moreover, Tumbler received much-needed political attention.

While geoparks are ad hoc designations, it's also hoped that key sites within them are ultimately protected under local, regional or national legislation. Stonehammer's creation was instrumental in New Brunswick instituting geodiversity protection laws, and Tumbler's efforts similarly galvanized the typically foot-dragging B.C. government. "Regardless of the decision, the application process has raised our profile enough to boost tourism — and bring pending legislative protection for B.C.'s fossils. Even being an aspiring geopark justifies itself," says Helm, whose team was ecstatic at the outcome.

"Community exhilaration when a park is chosen is beyond anything else I've observed," says Nowlan, who was also celebrating. "Canada is an enormous country with huge potential given our geodiversity. There's something like a dozen or so aspiring geoparks in Canada, most in very early stages."

Which basically means this: a few billion more years of stories in the works.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.