Award-winning freelance biological illustrator, natural history artist and author Aleta Karstad holds her daughter Jennie as her sister Karen looks on, during one of the family’s trips through the Cumshewa Head area on Haida Gwaii with John Wood and Karstad’s husband, naturalist Dr. Fred Schueler, in the late ‘80s. Natural history journal entries, illustrations and hiking information produced during the trips was later published in a Western Canada Wilderness Committee book, thought to have helped save the area from logging. (Aleta Karstad/Submitted photo)

Artist-biologist duo that contributed to conservation on Haida Gwaii wins award

Aleta Karstad, Dr. Fred Schueler win prize for conservation efforts, including Cumshewa Head area

A couple whose work is thought to have contributed to the protection of the Cumshewa Head area on Haida Gwaii have won an award for their conservation efforts.

On May 19, WWF-Canada and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) announced that artist-biologist duo Aleta Karstad and Dr. Fred Schueler were the first couple to have won the Glen Davis Conservation Leadership Prize, which is now in its fourth year.

According to a release, Karstad and Scheueler are being awarded $10,000 for their role in “bringing meaningful protections to identifiable land or aquatic ecosystems,” including the publication of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee “Cumshewa Head Trail” book in 1990.

The book combines natural history journal entries and illustrations of Cumshewa Head by Karstad with a trail guide section by former resident John Wood, and is credited with raising awareness and helping to prevent the logging of the area.

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The cover of the “Cumshewa Head Trail” book published by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee is pictured in this submitted photo. (Aleta Karstad/Submitted photo)

Speaking to the Observer by phone from their home in Ontario, Karstad and Scheueler said they lived on Haida Gwaii for about a year and a half in the late ‘80s.

Karstad had come to do watercolour paintings of birds on the west coast — “I would climb trees and paint,” she remembers — but the would-be publisher got bought and the project was dropped.

“But while we were there, we made friends with a fellow who worked at the post office named John Wood,” Karstad said. “That was the beginning of a long friendship.”

Wood was known for hiking in the Cumshewa Head area, having marked a trail himself after his first trip there from Moresby Camp in 1985, and he invited Karstad, Scheueler and their young daughter Jennie to join him.

Also speaking by phone, from Texada Island where he now resides, Wood told the Observer the Canadian forestry company MacMillan Bloedel was proposing to log the Cumshewa Head area around the time he met Karstad and Scheueler.

“I just thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen,” Wood said of the area, adding that he has made over 60 trips to build and maintain the trail over the years.

“I was very concerned with getting the area protected. That was always a focus of what I would tell [Karstad and Scheueler] about the area. So the trip down there, they were already thinking about how they could help with accomplishing that.”

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Karstad said they went into the area with Wood about three or four times. She would note the natural history observations of the group in her journal, and sit on drifted logs to do ink drawings and watercolour illustrations of the scenery.

“That’s what I did everywhere,” she said. “That was my way of seeing.”

The Western Canada Wilderness Committee got wind of Karstad’s journal entries and decided to print them in a book with a foreword written by Chief Cumshewa Charles Wesley, as well as hiking information from Wood to make it “more accessible to the public.”

“It frightened away MacMillan Bloedel,” Karstad said of the book.

“This is what MacMillan didn’t want to have happen. They really wanted to keep it quiet so they could have it logged.

“Once something’s in print, people back away.”

Scheueler added “this was just five years after the arrests of everybody on Lyell Island that led to the establishment of Gwaii Haanas, so there was a lot of tension.”

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Wood noted that the Cumshewa Head area, including the heritage site of Cumshewa village, is now protected as part of the Kunxalas Conservancy, which extends from Copper Bay to Gwaii Haanas.

“We never had enough clout to get the area protected, but we always managed to derail the current logging plans,” he said.

“Today the area is at last protected, along with many other parts of Haida Gwaii, thanks to the dedication, perseverance and strength of the Haida Nation.”

Karstad and Scheueler said they were honoured to be recognized for their “diverse fascinations with everything in nature.”

“We plan to use this generous prize to make our nature observations, data and artwork more accessible to science, government, and the public,” they said in the release.

“It will help to make our work a prototype for preserving the field notes that many naturalists have been keeping for generations, and for linking art and science toward conservation action.”

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In addition to the couple’s work in the Cumshewa Head area, WWF-Canada and CPAWS also cited their contribution to national protection results for the rivers crossed by the Energy East Pipeline from Fort McMurray, Alberta to Saint John, New Brunswick, streams and rivers in northeastern Ontario, and the Dumoine River in Quebec as reasons for their win.

Sandra Schwartz, national executive director of CPAWS, said that for over 40 years, the couple has visited sites across Canada to document and monitor changes taking place in wildlife and native habitats, and to identify new threats to the environment.

“They have generously donated their field notes and visual records for the purpose of furthering knowledge, education and science,” Schwartz said. “Their enormous contributions have made a difference for nature protection in Canada.”

Monte Hummel, president emeritus of WWF-Canada, called the couple, “conservation heroes.”

“Dr. Schueler — an expert on often-neglected wildlife such as reptiles and amphibians, crayfish, mussels and wetland plants — has been crucial to protecting natural sites from coast to coast to coast,” Hummel said. “Aleta’s beautiful paintings and biological illustrations have inspired conservation efforts, and she has generously donated her work to raise funds for nature protection campaigns.

“This is truly a dynamic duo who have made a quiet but huge difference for nature in Canada.”

Past prize recipients include Anne Sherrod of B.C. in 2017, Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Northwest Territories in 2018 and Raymond Plourde of Nova Scotia in 2019.

The prize honours the late Glen Davis, a Toronto-based conservation philanthropist, who was murdered in 2007.

According to the release, Davis “loved wild country and generously supported those trying to protect it.”

The annual award was established by WWF-Canada and CPAWS in 2017 on the 10th anniversary year of Davis’ death.

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