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Canada: Nature-lovers -- not hunters -- flock to wilderness

Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2000

ARMSTRONG, Ontario (AP) -- No moose heads or bear rugs adorn the WildWaters Bed and Breakfast on the edge of the northern Ontario wilderness.

Instead, a string of wooden fish and some waterfowl carvings hang in the main lounge, which is well-stocked with outdoor manuals and nature books -- and a big-screen TV with satellite hookup.

The lack of hunting spoils is more than an aesthetic choice, says manager Bill Smith.

''I feel that's the way society is turning,'' said Smith, a lifelong hunter who now caters mostly to canoeists, fishing enthusiasts and the occasional bird watcher at WildWaters, 120 miles north of Lake Superior.

Figures compiled by Canada's environment ministry show more people are visiting the nation's parks and protected areas, and spending more money doing so, even as the number of hunters is declining.

The shift -- attributed to changing attitudes toward the environment and hunting, as well as increased gun control measures -- has intensified the focus on ecotourism and its goal of providing access to the outdoors with minimum impact on the environment.

''I think these resorts and lodges that have done this traditional business are waking to this change,'' said Steve Bruno, a consultant with the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership, which works to promote the province.

Today's ecotourist, he said, wants both the pristine wilderness and the comforts of home. To lure them, the outdoor industry offers a range of adventure travel, from hiking to canoeing, kayaking, fishing and snowmobiling, with an emphasis on family participation.

''They want that wild experience, but they want it to be safe and they want to get back to that lodge at the end,'' Bruno said. Outfitters ''need ways to enhance and develop an infrastructure that can get people who will pay a lot for what they want.''

Bruce Hyer, who runs WildWaters, said Ontario and Canada must figure out how to best exploit the ''natural and financial resource'' of its wilderness.

''It's important to Canada, and they've got to stop giving it away for free,'' said Hyer, who was instrumental in having nearby Wabakimi Provincial Park designated a 2.5 million-acre protected area. ''They've got to realize there are limits to it and you can use it up.''

To that end, Hyer has joined 12 other Ontario outfitters to promote the province's northern region as the world's finest wilderness canoeing destination. Called Paddling Ontario, the marketing effort, partly sponsored by the provincial government, has its own Web site (www.paddlingontario.com) and a rare community spirit in an industry known for rugged competition and individualism.

A set of industry standards is being drawn up and plans call for a map of Northern Ontario with the member outfitters represented, he said.

''It's really an interesting model of cooperation versus competition,'' he said, even though the standards will require him to upgrade his operation.

Hunting advocates acknowledge some decline in their numbers, particularly among waterfowl hunters, but insist hunting remains popular, and even a necessity, in rural Canada. At the same time, increasing urbanization along the border with the United States has reduced the number of occasional or casual hunters.

They argue the large fees paid for hunting licenses and game tags provide most of the money for wildlife management, and call ecotourists ''fair weather'' participants who spend less per day than hunters.

Mark Holmes, spokesman for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, noted the cancellation of last year's spring bear hunt in Ontario hurt outfitters who previously played host to 12,000 U.S. hunters for the short season.

Hunting profits help outfitters pay for readying their camps and equipment for the summer season and ecotourists fail to fill the void, Holmes said.

''You can have two hunters come in to pay some bills,'' he said. ''You need 50 ecotourists to get the same money. ... The sheer numbers and volume degrade the environment.''

A program set up by the private Schad Foundation to help Ontario hunting lodges recover from the loss of the spring bear hunt found few takers. Called Adventure Travel Ontario, it began with four operators, but two dropped out because ''it wasn't right for them,'' said David Cotter of the Schad Foundation.

''Some of them are in the business because they want to be alone in the woods. They don't want to cater to yuppies from Toronto,'' Cotter said.

He described the program as ''basic education'' for remote operations lacking in business and marketing skills.

Hunting lodges known for their rustic facilities often have to be convinced to spend money on decent beds, clean sheets, drapes and other touches, according to Cotter. His message to operators is simple: ''You're essentially trying to attract my mother.''

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