When Morrison P. Bridgland captured images of the hazy crags and oblique folds of the Canadian Rockies in the early 20 th Century, little did he know his photos - taken to create the first topographical maps of the region - would take on a life of their own. Photos snapped by Bridgland - a Dominion Land Surveyor - and other surveyors of the time were eventually packed in boxes and forgotten until an intrepid professor of environmental studies with a background in anthropology, philosophy and resource development stumbled across them in Jasper in 1996.
At the time Dr. Eric Higgs was working at the University of Alberta, and has since taken over as a professor and department director for the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria.
Catalyzed by a profound interest in resource restoration and recognizing the photos' latent power as a comparative tool, Dr. Higgs created the Mountain Legacy Project. The purpose was - and still is - to utilize archival research, repeat photography, and scientific, historical, and cultural analyses of repeated historical survey photographs to assess landscape change in the Canadian Rocky Mountains over the last century.
"When we first looked at them we realized they were part of a systematic survey, but we had no idea what. Then we were able, using the index at the front of the books, to find a couple locations," said Dr. Higgs. "We went back with the idea of seeing whether much had changed and we were shocked at how much it had."
By taking new photos of the areas found in the archived pictures, Dr. Higgs and his team of UVic undergraduates, along with a consortium of researchers and land managers, have been able to identify a range of human-made changes in the landscapes of B.C. and Alberta. Twinning the photos is a painstaking process, one that often resembles a scavenger hunt without all the clues. Working with minimal data - whatever is included on the photo or in the box it came in - the group has to identify the region, the general vicinity and then the exact location the original photo was taken from.
"The aim there is if you have this historic photograph and you have a modern photograph from the same location, you can track all sorts of really interesting changes," said Stuart Higgs (of no relation to Dr. Higgs), a fourth-year undergraduate student at UVic who has been involved in the project for four years. "You can see changes in the ecology and forest dynamics, you can see tree lines moving, meadow shapes changing, you can see river courses changing, glaciers retreating and often decreasing in volume, you can also see things like massive rockslides and landslides and a lot of really interesting cultural things as well."
The original images were taken at a pivotal point in Canadian history, a time when there was a significant shift into the western-dominated land management paradigm that exists today. The railroad was built through the mountains of Alberta and B.C. in 1885, at the same time the mountain parks were being established. For students of environmental studies, the data they are able to tease from the before and after is priceless.
"The more interesting things are especially in light of climate change and human driven changes in landscape and vegetation, so being able to see what the composition and community structure of vegetation was 100 years ago, really before we started meddling with things too much, and then to be able to see it today offers interesting insight into how things have shifted and changed," continued the younger Higgs.
Of 140,000 archived photos sitting in provincial and federal archives, the Mountain Legacy Project has paired 4,000. The scope of the project is enormous, and occasionally overwhelming, but the educational benefits stemming from a direct comparison between then and now far outweigh any logistical burden.
"The photographs have enormous rhetorical power, people look at them and immediately relate, they immediately make their own inferences about what they see so they're hugely powerful for education, so you can imagine I sprinkle them liberally throughout my lectures," continued Dr. Higgs. "I don't think the original surveyors had any sense that we'd be interested in the kinds of questions that we're interested in now about climate shifts, human impact on the landscapes, so I can only surmise that in the next 30 to 50 years we'll be uncovering new kinds of questions and new issues will arise."
The project has been jointly funded through the universities of Victoria and Alberta, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Parks Canada, Library and Archives Canada, the Alberta Ministry of Sustainable Resources Development and the BC Ministry of Forests. To see photos from the Mountain Legacy Project go to http://mountainlegacy.ca . To follow the project's blog, maintained by Higgs and his students, go to http://mountainlegacy.wordpress.com.